Saturday, June 15, 2013

Phillip Taffe, Recent Work Luhring Augustine

The temptation with Taffe is to surrender to his beguiling charms, and who wouldn’t succumb? Entering into this artist’s rarified realms is like a mission quest to view the original picture.  The canvas is his archetypal Garden of Eden populated by fanciful (and fancy) marks that hearken back to an archeological sensation, while providing a beatific abstract sheen.
Fortunately Taffe doesn’t take it for granted that his sinfully delicious mastery of decorative painting shouldn’t be challenged.  If you can get around Taffe’s insistent need to keep things clean and tidy, there is a prodigious level of compositional insight and suave integrity that saturates his picture plane.
One of the more bold pieces in the show, “Sardica II”, must have taken some intestinal fortitude to paint and exhibit. This is not a pliant picture; the twisted configurations that summon up supple serpentine tripe, writhe disconcertingly, while their molten core could melt down any minute. Yet the figure/ground relationship also refers to tapestry, and this daring magic carpet ride ends up rewarding the viewer who goes along for the trip.

Sardica II, 2013
Mixed media on canvas
55 1/2 X 80 inches

A standard take on Taffe is that he reinvents historical scripts and calligraphy by blending background washes with precision draftsmanship to achieve a flat field graphic interface. 
But when he relaxes his technical prowess a less inhibited flourish can be employed, as seen to wonderful effect in “Imaginary Landscape I”
This is my favorite artwork in the show, served up as an exquisitely loose concoction of instinctual biological forms. Diaphanous creatures from under the psyche/sea hover about, crowded together in a thoroughly random jumble. Possibly we are viewing their detailed nuance under a microscope, their origins obscured by a mist of dilute pigment that serves as an ethereal suspension.  

Imaginary Landscape I, 2013
Mixed media on canvas
37 1/2 x 37 5/8 inches

John Yau's comments in his essay on Hyperallergic suggest that Taffe’s work connects to a “tribal” imperative. Certainly Taffe’s informed references to cross cultural sources rooted in ancient language and symbols may conjure up associations to indigenous groups and spiritual practice, but I don’t think tribal fits here, at least in the sense of a communal dialogue.
Appealing to a truly tribal instinct would seem to impel a more urgent, rigorous pulsation and collective reverberation of primal ritual than we see in Taffe’s deliberate and entirely civil sensibility.
The artist tends to work on an immediate, schematic level of perceptual sight lines, so despite a labor-intensive process his intricate, stenciled motif can invoke “pretty” more than substantive. Inevitably my opinionated eye is lead toward floral arrangements and wallpaper.
The work could also be seen as succinct to a fault, and risk averse. There is little room for trial and error when employing such tight mark making. Then his pension for design can gift-wrap the visual delivery, and in a contemporary context may refer back to pattern painting in a predictable manner.
Ultimately though, this work contains an essential vitality that redeems his meticulous approach, celebrating painting as formal craft. Even if you might prefer representational imagery, or a more expressive gesture, Taffe has worked hard to earn your respect, and I believe he deserves it.

Imaginary Garden with Seed Clusters, 2013
Mixed media on canvas
97 7/8 x 61 7/8 inches 

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