After forging a reputation in London with a series of gallery shows during the Eighties and Nineties, in the summer of 2001 Fraser Taylor moved to live in Chicago. He arrived two weeks before 9/11, and recalls his ‘very dramatic and turbulent entry’ to the continent as the point at which a personal interest in loss became an obsession. This led to a serious reconsideration and redefinition of his painting, in which he began to pare it down to urgent essentials of form and line. Most notable was his near-eradication of colour in order to focus on the expressive potential of black, a decision that to some observers, following the seductive chromatic range of his earlier work, looked like commercial suicide. For the remainder of the decade, much of Taylor’s production was in black and white, with occasional reds or greys, and later some incursions into the use of a solitary intense hue – yellow, orange, purple, green – to surround and contain a mass of coagulated blacks. The purging of colour spoke of a wider index of loss in the emergence and aftermath of AIDS; Taylor lost many friends quickly and traumatically to the epidemic after their initial diagnosis in the late Eighties and Nineties. During his early years in America it was not only this experience and the induced paranoia of the Bush era, but Chicago itself that affected him, its geographic divisions emblematic of racial and economic segregation. He became interested in borders: ‘both actual and theoretical.’

This latest body of work – Peculiarities – is a return to painting after a four-year hiatus during which the artist has extended the range of his practice, working experimentally in installation, sculpture, animation, drawing, printmaking and collaborative performance.

Upon encountering these new paintings one is struck initially by two developments: the first in a more cursive and open exploration of the abstract formal language of the artist’s earlier painting, the second his tentative inclusion of a more expansive range of colour. Then, within the welters of painted, drawn and collaged marks a third factor becomes apparent – a means of representing the male body that is quite new in Taylor’s work. The body has been a continuous though often-subliminal presence for him, but here, combining snippets of photographic collage from the pages of gay pornographic magazines with drawings which map and connect erogenous zones in wiry line, the implicit is made explicit.

The generic title Peculiarities derives from what Taylor, referring to his fascination with collage process describes as ‘the visual peculiarities that the act of cutting, splicing and rearranging allows’. More than ever in the artist’s work, the surfaces of these paintings appear malleable constructs, as do the bodies they accrue and display. Echoing his source material’s fraught dichotomy between eroticism and the forensic, his collaged figures – both drawn and photographic – reveal the gestures and appurtenances of the body. They are adhered to the canvas with smears and blobs of paint, its oily seepage redolent of bodily fluids. Taylor’s evident mastery of pictorial structure frames a kind of scrapbook clustering of fragments that appears temporal or provisional, a perception enhanced by a more general surface agitation of scurries and accretions. The smudged dots and dashes and loping trails of black connecting each pictorial element form a kind of emotional circuit board in which the photographed body is often subsumed in scrawled obliterations, somewhere between denunciation and affirmation. In Peculiarities #5 figural fragments scratched into wet paint, white over black, read both as allusions to classical sculpture and to the furtive yearning of graffiti inscribed in public spaces. For all the visceral seriousness of the work there is also a playfulness, albeit a poignant one – note the way in which the line-drawn cock communes with its photographic counterpart at the bottom edge of #7 for instance.

Within a predominance of white and black, subsidiary colour in Peculiarities appears often that of the stationery cupboard; the buff of manila envelopes; post-it note yellows, day-glo fluorescents. It is a restrained reappearance, of scattered swatches of colour, within which painted smears and washes of red, lime green, delicate blues and pinks coexist.

In several paintings here simplified totemic forms are drawn in black line painted over fields of white; in #1 and #9 their protrusions reminiscent of the cartoonish figures of Hockney’s 1960 painting, the Whitman-inspired Adhesiveness. Taylor’s studio practice centres equally on painting, drawing and sculpture, and there is a clear interplay between media. His recent sculptures, entitled Orchid/Dirge, are inspired by visits to Derek Jarman’s garden at Dungeness; flowers entombed in accumulations of tarry black, laments for the rarified and exotic. Such three-dimensional works relate also to the amorphous masses of his paintings.

By their very nature the Peculiarities paintings are political, relating as Taylor states to ‘an intermingling of the personal and the political, and the violence we experience.’ The works are freighted in ambiguity, suggesting narratives of memorial and longing, but also of the potential for reclamation.

© Ian Massey October 2012

Fraser Taylor Peculiarities – Balloon Contemporary, Chicago
2 November to 2 December 2012


Posted in: Essays