Henry Taylor Unravels the Fabric of White Supremacy

PHILADELPHIA — If you couldn’t make it to Henry Taylor’s major retrospective at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), which ran through April 30, and don’t want to wait until that exhibition wends its way east to the Whitney in October, or just want to see a different facet of the artist’s work, head on over to the Fabric Museum & Workshop (FM&W) in Philadelphia, where the results of Taylor’s 18-month residency are on view on the second floor. 

These are not the large, lush figurative works for which Taylor is most known, but they share the “hunting and gathering” process he describes for his paintings.

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Artist Henry Taylor (at center) and FWM Senior Project Coordinator Abby Lutz source discarded materials in partnership with RAIR (Recycled Artists in Residency),
Philadelphia (© Henry Taylor, in collaboration with The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia)

Taylor collaborated with FM&W staff to source materials from the city’s Recycled Artists in Residency (RAIR) program. Having broken free from the boundaries of the canvas in the 1990s, painting on the surfaces of such found and discarded domestic objects as furniture, cereal boxes, empty cleaning bottles, and cigarette packs, he moved on to assemblage, using objects from flea markets, vintage stores, or otherwise salvaged.  

Installation view of Nothing Change, Nothing Strange (2023) (© Henry Taylor, in collaboration with The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia)

A large boat-like construction wrapped in canvas, atop a painted blue pallet, greets a visitor upon disembarking from the elevator at FW&M. Atop the hulking apparition is a gold-painted chair with shredded twigs, and from it rises a tree from that hangs black plastic bags and three large mounds of Afro hair in three colors (black, brown, and red). Ropes extend from the rear, like jet sprays, to connect to an enormous wooden loom from which are suspended more ropes, and from each dangles a metal door hinge and plastic water bottles filled with pebbles. 

This ship has arrived, simultaneously suggestive of colonial times, slave ships, and contemporary encampments of unhoused people. 

Installation view of Nothing Change, Nothing Strange (2023) (© Henry Taylor, in collaboration with The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia)

The Times Thay Aaint a Changing, Fast Enough!” is the title Taylor gave to a painting of Philando Castile that was exhibited at the 2017 Whitney Biennial. Castile was a 32-year-old Black American man who was shot to death at a traffic stop by a police officer in a suburb of Saint Paul, Minnesota in 2016. The same sentiment appears in the title he chose for this exhibition, Nothing Change, Nothing Strange

It is Taylor’s first foray into working with fabric. A chain link fence is woven with golden fleece, becoming a plaid pattern. Using warp and weft (horizontal and vertical) — the pattern of crisscrossed cloth, Taylor looks at how people, like materials, are held together, separated, and categorized socially and systematically. This pattern, called tartan, is traditionally associated with Scottish clans and families.

Taylor began the residency by investigating the racist and divisive histories of tartan plaid. “It’s always been a really partisan cloth,” Viccy Coltman, Professor in History of Art at Edinburgh University, told BBC Culture in 2017.

FW&M Chief Curator and Director of Curatorial Affairs, DJ Hellerman said Taylor was influenced by the 2018 documentary, Who Put the Klan in Ku Klux Klan, in which archaeologist and historian Neil Oliver examines the links between racism today in the Deep South and the Scots who first occupied it. As hundreds of thousands of Scots emigrated to the United States in the 18th century after being forced off of their land, the arrival of cotton in the US allowed them to become enslavers and wealthy plantation owners. After losing in the Civil War, they became embittered and formed a fraternal society that became the Ku Klux Klan.

Project assistant Bennett Cafarelli works on a large-scale loom built specifically for the exhibition. (© Henry Taylor, in collaboration with The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia)

Taylor creates tartan with neon lights, wraps boxes with tartan fabric, and on a grommeted tarp attached with blond and Afro hair, he meditates on the associations of tartan and Tarzan. Using a loom custom-built for him by the FM&W, Taylor created a black-on-black tartan cloth. In another work, in which a large tarp painted red is draped against the wall, tartan is deconstructed, as torn strips of plaid cascade alongside bungee cord and a bicycle wheel. Elsewhere, a totem of bicycle wheels is alongside a clothesline of tartan kilts.

Installation view of Nothing Change, Nothing Strange (2023) (© Henry Taylor, in collaboration with The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia)

Born in 1958, Taylor grew up in Oxnard, California, where his father painted houses and bars at a US Government naval air station. His earliest exposure to art was in the houses his mother was paid to clean. Among the subjects Taylor studied at Oxnard College were journalism, anthropology, and set design. The abstract artist James Jarvaise, then head of the Department of Fine and Performing Arts, encouraged Taylor in his artistic practice. In the 1990s, he studied at the California Institute of the Arts while working as a psychiatric technician at Camarillo State Mental Hospital. His practice draws on his knowledge of art history and the work of Alice Neel, Kerry James Marshall, Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, David Hammons, and Gordon Matta-Clark, among others.

Artists in residence experimented at FM&W, and though not required to employ fabric, some, notably Louise Bourgeois, did so. Taylor too has taken the “fabric” in FM&W seriously. Along one wall is a shelf stacked with folded garments — tartans, African prints (whose manufacture has been appropriated by European and Chinese firms), and sweats, including hoodies, tracing African American history through the fabric. 

Henry Taylor: Nothing Change, Nothing Strange continues at the Fabric Workshop and Museum (1214 Arch Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) through October 22. The exhibition was curated by Chief Curator & Director of Curatorial Affairs DJ Hellerman, and Senior Project Coordinator Abby Lutz in collaboration with the artist and the FWM Studio team.

Source: Hyperallergic.com

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