Kevin Earl Taylor’s New Exhibition Apex Opens in Berlin
by Tamsin Smith & Matt Gonzalez
Circle Culture in Berlin, Germany, recently opened Apex, a solo exhibition by San Francisco-based painter Kevin Earl Taylor, which runs until September 15, 2018. The exhibition feature paintings, works on paper, and site-specific installation. This is Taylor’s third exhibition with the gallery.
Taylor paints moments of encounter, often pairing animals and occasionally people in contemplative moments. The subjects face off with an air of mystery, as they seem to be sorting out their place in the natural world and relationships to each other. These vignettes are subtle, yet suggest commentaries on a disappearing world. They prompt the viewer’s curiosity and, at the deepest level, evoke consideration of what it is to be conscious, to be human, and perhaps to be nearing extinction. As a grouping, the canvases work to redeem the value of vanishing time.
In one of painting, a bubble floats above a group of chimpanzees in various states. Some look down in resignation or mediation, while the others seem to gaze outward but not necessarily at each other. In the orb swims a beautiful fish, hovering over the barren landscape. Yet the chimps barely appear to notice it. The painting speaks to diminishing water resources and presents our own alienation from the wonders that surround us, both in nature and in human interactions.
A bubble also appears in a painting in which a chimpanzee presses his or her hands against the surface, peering at a blooming plant. The physical connection between the two, and sense of longing and even loss, are palpable. Perhaps this forecasts the future of our planet, when liveable habitation has receded to a small pocket of physical space. The viewer may ask whether anything outside of the protective capsule is capable of survival. The chimpanzee touches the orb as if remembering a time when plants were plentiful. Yet the plant behind glass is untouchable, relegated to a special realm as a last remaining survivor of its kind.
In the painting “Martyr” an African wild dog approaches what appears to be a sleek sculpture of a panther on a leopard-skin pedestal. The panther is presented as something rare or extinct, and thus worthy of this exalted placement. The painting addresses the inevitability that all species are headed toward extinction. Will the African wild dog (already high on the endangered list) be next in line? Even in the turning of its head in dramatic fashion, this immobile sculpture conveys its scorn. Can we even call a sculpture of a panther a panther anymore when we’ve stripped it of its essence and propped it up like a Hollywood icon? What is the intended commentary here, at what price fame and glory? Is the animal relegated to a memory? Taylor succeeds in creating these non-intuitive moments, which the viewer hastens to make sense of, all the while weighing the contrived setting and face-off between living and extinct mammals.
In some cases Taylor places geometric signage into the paintings, or as objects to be gazed upon, thereby igniting mystery and signally that the possible narratives needn’t be literal. In one series, he uses the pedestal, common in museums, as a platform to elevate the viewing. Isn’t that what we always do, even in less formal settings? Animals too have ways of sensing one another and parsing out pecking order, danger and/or fellowship.
Missing from the canvases is the presence of human beings who, of course, have evolved complex means of communication.The absence here causes the viewer to speculate as to how animals in the wild speak with one another, how they make their presence and intentions known. The viewer can’t help but place him or herself in the scenes presented in order to draw meaning from the tension depicted and imagine the events unfolding.
In addition to portraits in which some animals turn away while others yearn to connect, sits a painting, “Astral Projections”. In this work, an animal disengages from itself. Whether this is phenomena connotes a desire to extend beyond the self or is emblematic of self-alienation is left for the viewer to decide. One thing that’s clear from all these paintings is the reminder that all living things are interrelated through the air, the ocean, the soil, and even at a cellular level. None of us is an island, whether we sit on a pedestal or within a bubble or poised on the last remaining ice shelf. An aura of vanishing drifts over all these paintings. They sit on the canvas like precious offerings to all that we should be holding dear and may be on the verge of losing. In their soft lyricism, they cry out, it seems, for our own sake. Taylor’s work is complete because he anticipates and invites the engagement a viewer will employ to make sense of not just these paintings, but also real-life challenges faced on a daily basis.
These paintings of surreal landscapes and encounters pose questions and invite us to respond. Why do we associate the way we do? Is aggression presumed even among adversaries in the animal kingdom? What assumptions are we comfortable making about other beings? Should we reevaluate them in order not to lose something precious? Even amidst silence, can we communicate deep meanings? Why do we sometimes turn away when what we really want is to move towards another? Taylor’s work doesn’t prescribe a particular answer, but rather inspires the viewer to wrestle with these essential questions of human experience. Taylor’s work reminds us to embrace the questions. It is elegant, clean, and sparse in execution. There is a calmness that attends these paintings. The imagery and open space invite the rest of us to fill in blanks.
Tamsin Smith is a published poet, essayist, and creative strategist. She was founding president of the pioneering social action campaign (RED) and currently serves as chief philanthropy officer at Boon Supply. Her verse collection “Word Cave” was published by Risk Press in 2018.
Matt Gonzalez is an artist who exhibits with Dolby Chadwick Gallery in San Francisco. He has written numerous art reviews and catalogue essays about contemporary artists and previously taught Art & Politics at the San Francisco Art Institute.