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Paintings by Rodney Taylor at UB Center for the Arts

Detail of a piece in Rodney Taylor's "Hero Series."

Impure Abstraction

The title of Rodney Taylor’s exhibit at UB Center for the Arts is Impure Abstraction. Impure as in abstraction that morphs into figuration, or just suggestions of identifiable imagery, though inescapable suggestions. Impure also as to media. Taylor paints in clay and pigment slurries, thickly applied, like mud, that when they dry and harden, crack like mud, and disintegrate, or threaten to disintegrate, fall in flakes and bits from the canvas or paper matrix. Art as a product of time and gravity as well as the initial work of the artist. And in a crude and graceless pictorial to non-pictorial style. Consciously uncouth. The style of first learners about how to make art.

It is an art that proclaims entropy. And attitude, a mix of passion and a vision that seems still inchoate, formative, impure in that sense. And bleak, dismal.

Trees are a motif. But blasted trees. As if struck by lightning. Solitary trunks, with some branches missing, others intact but precariously so. (Like the solitary scenic withered tree in Waiting for Godot. And latter-day embodiment of the tree in Genesis, and image of the post-fall situation, post-fall human condition. Taylor’s bleak vision, outlook, seems a lot like Samuel Beckett’s.)

The works are categorized into subject matter series—a tree series, for example—that much like the abstraction and figuration categories can morph into one another. Other series include a house series, a window series, a black and white series, a black, white, and gray series, a scribble series, and a hero series.

Two adjacent works in the house series present, respectively, an outside view and an inside view. The outside view consists of a nominally indicated pitched roofline and window looking into blackness, amid a jumble of horizontal and vertical plus a few oblique linear indications. The inside view is basically just a window, set against dark walls, looking out onto a confusion of environmental elements, sky, clouds, trees.

Whereas, works in the window series are even more abstract. Various types of grids, basically, in black and white—similar to the black and white series and black, white, and grey series, which feature further grids—that evoke prison barred windows, barbed wire fence. Vision—outlook literally and figuratively—as constrained.

The prison, imprisonment, idea ties in with the scribble series. Rolls of razor wire barrier.

There are several examples of diptych, two parts to the work, side by side or above and below. In one of these, human figures make a rare appearance. On one side, humans in numbers, in orderly regimentation, as individuals, it would seem, but without notable personal distinctions. Humans dehumanized. On the other side, monotone blank, the humans eliminated. A series of smaller-scale works features humans, but incomplete. That is, the sketch artwork and human subjects alike are incomplete. A sense almost of amputees.

And what to make of the hero series? Featuring the out-and-out most figurative painting in the show—about hero as not so much non-hero or anti-hero as just no-show hero—and several determinedly abstractions (another kind of no-show hero). The figurative work is an action scene wherein an authentic gorilla is abducting a terrified, screaming damsel, while off to the side of the picture is the hero Superman—but strangely inert—in fact, strangely headless. Until we come to realize, not Superman at all, but just his uniform, empty, limp, as if hanging on a hanger in a closet.

The hero series abstractions recall in concept if not in style Barnett Newman’s extreme non-figuration painting Vir Heroicus Sublimis. Newman’s work all neat and tidy—well, comparatively neat and tidy—Taylor’s all gestural untidy.

Sandra Q. Firmin curated the exhibit, which continues through May 10.

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