Henry Taylor: Where the Streets Have a Name
What’s most striking about the work of artist Henry Taylor is how uniquely he captures the look and feel of the inner city—the place where he grew up and still lives. His compelling portraits, scenes of neighborhood gatherings or family get-togethers, consist of limber figures, in lively colors, occupying freewheeling compositions.
Most are based on vintage photographs, news clippings or historical African American events. Like some kind of visual jazz, they riff of a naive sensibility, but a refined use of paint application. His idiosyncratic sculptures and installations sometimes include unconventional urban materials: found litter from the street, discarded household items, even dead trees planted in dirt covering the gallery floor. His work cuts on an edge.
I recently visited Taylor at his spacious studio, which sits smack-dab in the middle of downtown L.A. The space was filled with an overwhelming variety of materials and half-finished acrylic paintings stacked against the walls. He was in final preparations for an upcoming exhibition at Blum & Poe gallery that includes new paintings, a mixed-media installation, and a room-sized video projection. It quickly became obvious from his answers to my questions that Taylor isn’t prone to self-examination about the meaning behind his output. Although many have described his work as political, he doesn’t have time to get caught up in that discussion. Late into the night, when the streets are eerily still, he hunkers down and gets to the task at hand.
Read the full feature in the November 2016 issue, on sale here.
Gregg Gibbs: Can you tell me a little about your background? Where did you grow up?
Henry Taylor: I was born in Ventura, California and grew up nearby in Oxnard. I’m 58 years old, the youngest of eight kids. My Dad is from east Texas; his father got shot and killed when he was ten. I had two brothers who went to Nam. One got shot on his birthday and died seven years later. One became a tunnel rat in Tennessee. I’ve seen my Dad fight the police. That was the first time I’d ever seen that. My brother jumped through a window to save him. One brother was a founder of the Panthers. I was trying to get into the political groups when I was younger, but they threw me out ’cause they thought I was a clown.
How did you start painting?
I started painting back in junior high school. In 1984, I started taking painting classes with a painter named James Jarvaise at Oxnard College for about six years on and off, but pretty consistently. I was working in the mental ward at a state hospital, but Jarvais suggested I transfer to CalArts. He was a painter—not well known—but was in a major exhibition called 16 Americans with artists like Robert Rauschenberg, Louise Nevelson, and Jasper Johns at MOMA in New York. I didn’t know he was in that show until he was 90 years old. He fell off into obscurity. Jarvaise was significant to me because he changed my life.
Can you name some of your other influences?
That changes so frequently. When you’re young, you maybe like the Beatles—then you grow up. I could say Picasso one day and somebody else the next. Somebody brings something to you and you like it. Sometimes I re-look at stuff that I didn’t know I liked until I looked at it again. I’m influenced by life. When I look at a painting, it’s not like I’m looking for a style. I’m just looking. It’s like when I’m playing Miles Davis. I’m not looking to imitate him. I’m just listening and not thinking about it. Sometimes I revisit things. I didn’t play Curtis Mayfield for ten years then somehow I started playing him. Like, why do you like a certain thing, who knows? I don’t get caught up in that. One day I’m walking down skid row and this guy is cutting up paper—he might make me want to make an abstract painting more than anybody else. You don’t know how someone gets inspired... it just happens, bro.
Do you listen to music when you paint? If so, is there any particular sound that inspires you?
All kinds. Reggae, ska, rap, classical, you name it. Depends on my mood. I try to be open to a lot of things. Every painting is so different. I don’t have a formula. Sometimes I work with photographs, other times it’s intuitive. I like to paint to music. It may enter into an image. I do portraits. I like food. I’ll let everything permeate the work. I just try to be me. What you see is what you get.
You worked at a mental institution while going to art school. How did that experience influence the images you painted?
I worked for ten years at Camarillo State Hospital. It was a halfway decent job. I’d pass out medication and be a mediator between the doctor and client. It was a job that had benefits, but it was a transition period. I went to school during the daytime taking classes with Jarvaise, then I’d work the night shift. It was cool for a while until I had to go. I left art school and just stopped working.
Can you tell me about your installation with the dining room you created? What was the meaning of the dirt on the floor?
Probably visiting east Texas, where my parents are from. Just thinking about a specific generation, a specific time in the past. Again, it’s what it’s about. The dirt is about where we come from and where we are going. The soil is everything. Cotton depleted the soil, and it’s not growing anything now. It’s about agriculture—we’re an agricultural country—like nature. Thank you. I’m glad you went there.
When you go to a gallery, you don’t expect to find dirt. An exhibition space is always clean and antiseptic. Is it your intention to subvert that?
It’s no different than a prop, or material, or anything else, you know what I mean? It’s not anything new that will help facilitate my point. Just like an empty lot. Like water—some people have pools, some people have puddles. When you look at a Diebenkorn from above, it’s not the same as that street thing. It’s like everything is whatever you want it to be—all of it, everything you see. If you’re going through a tunnel or crossing the tracks, there’s always going to be a line.
Picasso once said that a painting is never finished, it’s abandoned. Is that the same for you? How do you decide when your paintings are done?
I don’t decide—you decide. I don’t know anything. Some things sit around. I’ve worked on paintings in the gallery hours before a show has opened. It’s abandoned when I go home. So I don’t know what Picasso is saying there. Sometimes it’s about the freshness, too. A lot of times I look at stuff and can’t tell if it’s done or not. I keep painting until it’s time to stop. I’ve worked on paintings on the gallery wall in every show I’ve had ’cause I can’t tell if I’m sure it’s done. I work on too many things at once.
Some artists work on one painting at a time until it’s complete, then begin another.
That ain’t me. Some people wear the same clothes every day. Like Agnes Martin, the legendary minimalist painter. She wore the same shit every day ’cause she didn’t want to think about it. There was so much going on in her head that it got in the way. That makes sense to me. I want to put green into everything. I’m tired of everything. I do something and then I can’t even stand to look at it, then smack, I cover it up. I don’t know, I’m just running. Sometimes I’ll cut an image out of the newspaper, it doesn’t have to have meaning. I’m just happy to get a good spot to park in. You know what, sometimes I just hear the same thing and I’m burnt out. Sometimes it takes the fun out of it. Sometimes sex isn’t good sex.
How do you curate your shows? Does the work go together thematically?
Each painting is like an “at bat.” You swing for the fence. But you can strike out, too. They may work or may not. Sometimes the work is very spontaneous, other times you think you have a strategy, but you want to be open. You also have got to produce.
When someone says your work reminds them of other artists’ work, do you find that insulting?
Of course, I look at a lot of people. I compare other people all the time, but who wants to be put in a box and held down? It’s not even serious. Some dude paints with purple, somebody paints with white. It’s not that big a deal. If you think about it too much, you take the fun out of it. The fun time is when you don’t have crunch time—other times you’ve just got to do it. You’re doing stuff that you like sometimes, or you jump over here, go back to that, you know. The whole process changes. Sometimes I’m thinking about numbers. It’s like you’re a short order cook and you have to feed 20 people. I have a friend who cooks at a prison and he says, “If I don’t get the meals right, they’ll riot.” So it’s up to you to get it right. You may like cooking, but now it’s manufacturing. But some people aren’t like that. They don’t mind putting a stamp on it. You know, I used to make a guitar myself, but now I have some workers over here and they’re making them for me.
What do you think about artists like Jeff Koons, who employs other people to make his work?
I don’t care what they do. What they do is their business. I went to therapy today and I’m still learning a few things. I’m not trying to be acceptable. You know when people say, “Those guys aren’t musicians, they’re not playing music if they’re rapping.” I know some guys my age who have that same mentality. I don’t have that. Sometimes you look at someone’s shoes and you say, “Those are ugly.” Then the next day you’ve got the same shoes on. Sometimes you don’t know what’s going to hit you. I remember my son gave me a record and I said, “I hate this.” Then I called him up and said, “I like this album.” I had to listen to it again. I have an opinion, but I don’t know if it’s correct. It’s like having an album that you never play—you just look at it. That’s really all I’m saying, ’cause I don’t want to shut something down. I don’t want anybody telling me, “You’re listening to white-boy music.” I’m just trying to make a point. Do you have a James Brown record?
Yeah, I do. I listen to the Hardest Working Man in Show Business.
That’s my point. Some people eat Chinese food, some want to eat tacos. I try to vary the menu. I’ll get the fish or I’ll say, “Where’s the hamburger?”
A lot of your paintings feel like memory recall, sort of like moments in time rooted in the past. Is that your intention when creating an image?
I hear you. They’re like memories of family—each one is different, but certain paintings aren’t about memory. If I find a photograph that gives me a feeling, I’ll paint it. It’s about the composition. They’re not about the street, they’re from the street. I like that Bob Dylan song “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” which probably inspired my first show with dirt in the dining room.
What are you working on for your upcoming show at Blum & Poe in L.A.?
I almost want it to be a surprise and not tell you right now. It’s just about what I see. To be specific, it’s about all the disparities that go on. Here I am on skid row. This side of the street is different from that side of the street. This room is different from that room. It’s about life, that’s what it’s about.
Some people say the art world is elitist, that most of the important collectors are part of the one percent. Do you agree?
It’s not up to me to get them to start waking up. They can be naive, but that’s not for me to say. I hear it all the time—everyone’s got a banner for something. I’m not talking about the art world. I’m talking about the real world. I guess I don’t get interviewed that much. They don’t call me up and ask me how I feel about the latest shooting. I don’t really need to talk about it. Everybody knows what’s going on. It’s not like I need to say anything about it. Don’t think that I don’t care—I’m just not protesting in the street about it. A lot of times I don’t want to pay attention to the political, I just want to paint. We all want to get paid for what we love, whether right or wrong. That’s it, plain and simple. You can quote me on this: tell the truth.
Henry Taylor’s solo exhibition at Blum & Poe in Los Angeles will run through November 5, 2016.
Originally published in the November 2016 issue of Juxtapoz Magazine, on newsstands worldwide and in our web store.