One of the few positive side effects of the global pandemic caused by Covid-19 has been a renewed emphasis on the primacy of an artist’s work. That can be seen in “Necessary Memories,” the new show of Janet Taylor Pickett’s paintings currently on view at Jennifer Baahng Gallery on Madison Avenue in New York City until October 30, 2021.
Although Taylor Pickett has an international collector base, this is her first show in New York. It came about after her work was shown at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., where it drew the attention of one of the exhibition’s curators. That curator pointed out the work to Jennifer Baahng, a Korea-born New York gallerist who specializes in contemporary art.
Though unable to meet in person because of the long pandemic restrictions on travel and social contact, Jennifer Baahng and Janet Taylor Pickett—two women living on opposite coasts—were able to develop a strong personal bond through their shared encounter with Taylor Pickett’s artwork. Much of the work that Taylor Pickett shows at Jennifer Baahng Gallery during the long months of quarantine was either new work being made in isolation or work previously made during Taylor Pickett’s 35-year teaching career, which she gave up 20 years ago solely to focus on her work.
“I was making art,” Taylor Pickett says, “when no one was looking.” Now, after having pieces hung prominently in then-Senator Kamala Harris’s congressional office; in solo shows, and in her work; and being included in exhibitions at places like the Montclair Art Museum, the Harvard Arts Museum, and the Phillips Collection, Taylor Pickett is aware that she’s now on collectors’ radar.
Taylor Pickett’s art often centers on the image of a single figure, a Black woman in the setting of a singular moment. Both narrative and biographical, the figures speak to Taylor Pickett’s emphasis on representation. “My Blackness is a declarative statement in my work,” she says. Her images reference the tradition of freed slaves in her native Michigan, which was once a terminus on the Underground Railroad.
Drawing inspiration from childhood memories of a cherished Vermeer print in her mother’s household, Taylor Pickett produces work that also harks back to the art of Romare Bearden, with its liberal use of collage elements and a fixation on textile patterns and design inspired by Matisse. As she’s been both a teacher and an artist, the work she creates is in constant dialogue with the art of the past as well as her own history.
She draws equally from the tradition of African American quilting and the social and political activities of the 1960s and 1970s.
She approaches popular culture with eyes wide open to the undertone of pain. “I have a collection of pejorative, cliché things that we use to denigrate Black people,” she says, describing her desire to take ownership of the derogatory images and reuse them for her own purposes. A watermelon motif appears in a number of her works, often as the pattern on a cotton dress.
In other paintings, Taylor Pickett has reworked images of Omo women from Ethiopia who were photographed in traditional, objectifying styles. Addressing the racist undertone of the intent to present these women as exotic or “other,” Taylor Pickett enhanced the images with her own stock of botanical elements collaged into a transformative whole she calls “Exotica Botanica.” Embedding these alienating photographs within a collage of flora turns the whole into a celebration of universal women’s joy and humanity.
This is the common theme in Taylor Pickett’s work, the mixing of formal elements with natural, social and art historical references. She addresses persistent themes of representation while engaging with history. Janet Taylor Pickett’s work is both timeless and particularly of our time making this her moment to be seen.
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