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Art In Conversation

Alison Elizabeth Taylor with John Yau

The artist in her studio. Photo by Andy Hunter.

In the midst of preparation for her first one-person exhibit at James Cohan Gallery, which will be on view from Sept. 7th to Sept. 30th, Alison Elizabeth Taylor takes time off from her busy schedule to welcome Rail art editor, John Yau, at her Brooklyn Navy Yard studio. After a brief viewing of her only oil painting, “Subjects F9-L9 Finish Corporate Pride Project”, they sat down and began to discuss her life and work.

John Yau (Rail): You work in two distinct ways, wood inlay and painting. In the wood inlay works, the viewer becomes highly conscious of what he or she is looking at. You’re reminded of tacky playroom interiors from the 50’s and 60’s.

Alison Elizabeth Taylor: Oh, definitely. Growing up in the southwest I felt oppressed by all the wood laminate. Every dwelling in Las Vegas seemed to include something in particleboard covered in wood laminate.

Rail: Las Vegas is artificial, a theme park about money.

Taylor: Right.

Rail: And there’s something artificial about the work that you’re making, but you’re not being ironic.

Taylor: No, definitely not. That’s why I switched from using wood grain contact paper to making these inlay works. I was making the contact paper works in LA, but when I came to New York and saw the Studiolo from the Ducal Palace at the Met, I realized that that there were much more interesting things to do with the history of that craft, especially using these particular images and these particular subjects and portraying them with this medium that had really been developed for kings and popes. The whole history of inlay began in Asia with marble and then in the Italian Renaissance it became something for their royalty. And then Louis XIV got really into it.

Rail: So you started doing research?

Taylor: Yeah, it was fascinating.

Rail: And you switched from contact paper to wood veneer?

Taylor: Yeah.

Rail: And you had to, basically, teach yourself.

Taylor: Thank God there are a lot of hobby books out there and Internet talk groups about how to do wood inlay, but because a lot of these people are working in England, and I’m working in hot, humid New York summers, I had to find other methods to do it. So it’s a hodge-podge.

Rail: You’re also talking about making large-scale pieces, which is different than what most hobbyists do.

Taylor: Yeah.

Rail: And you’re trying to get as much detail into a large-scale piece as you can get into it. If you think about the relation between your painting and the wood veneer, one thing they have in common is your attention to detail. Let’s talk about how it all started! You began working in wood veneer after you came to New York. Before that, in LA, you worked in contact paper and before that you were a comic book artist.

Alison Elizabeth Taylor, “Roadside” (2006). Wood inlay, shellac. 47” × 56”. Courtesy of James Cohan Gallery.

Taylor: Yeah, it made sense. I was working very graphically doing indie comics. You have to be able to Xerox them to distribute them so you have to have a graphic line for reproduction purposes, and that is why, with the graphic style I was already working in, I was able to segue into doing contact paper inlay. I went to a 99¢ store and I found contact paper and I thought, “Oh this would be a great material.”

Rail: As a comic book artist you’re working in a different scale than as a painter.

Taylor: Yeah, tiny.

Yau: And with comics you want them to be reproducible, but with the inlays and paintings it’s different.

Taylor: Right. You have to see them in real life to even get a sense of the surfaces.

Rail: So you had a revelation at some point and changed.

Taylor: Definitely.

Rail: What caused it?

Taylor: Well, the democratic aspect of indie comics—I feel deeply about that—and the fact that people could buy a comic for a dollar made a lot of sense to me. I wasn’t into museums or fine art so much as I was into these little booklets I could get, go back to my apartment, eat Doritos and read and possibly learn about somebody else’s life or interior world rather than being always subjected to my own. But as soon as something starts to be easy or feels like it’s what I do, I usually reject it. I don’t know if it comes out of self-destructive feelings or if I’m just hungry.

Rail: So you get bored with what you know how to do, and you’re also restless.

Taylor: Yes, very restless.

Rail: And you keep trying to expand the possibilities of what you can do. I would also say that you’re self-taught as a painter. You went to art school at the age of 27, but you already had done comics. You paint in a way that’s very sincere and straightforward. Nothing is taken for granted in your painting. There’s no shorthand; everything is pictorially spelled out. I think the sincerity is where the emotional power lies because your work is not allegorical.

Taylor: Yeah, because the paintings have their own internal logic, you know. And that keeps it from being an allegory.

Rail: Right, an allegory is dependant on an existing story; it is a particular manifestation of that story. I like that the beer cans over there on the left look like they’re made out of wood. That’s part of the internal logic of the painting. It’s not like those cans were something people went out to a local grocery store and bought. It’s particular to this world.

Taylor: Yeah, they were shipped in from corporate headquarters. They are going to have these logos. I’m still developing the logo to go on the beer cans and the sashes. See, these figures have tattoos. It’s permanent for them. But these guys, their logos go right here on sashes, and they can take them off.

Rail: Everything is there for a reason.

Taylor: Well I believe that a painting should reveal itself over twenty years. In indie comics, each panel, each composition is meant to be read quickly as a small part of a whole. Whereas a painting, everything is contained within one image. Different levels of meaning are revealed the longer it is looked at.

Rail: You had to rethink your whole approach.

Taylor: Absolutely. It was very challenging in the beginning because I started out doing something resembling Byzantine panel paintings. I was able to work a narrative that would occur in three places in the same composition, which was challenging because it would have the same actors.

Rail: Like a predella.

Taylor: Yeah, exactly! But then I realized that I wanted to do it almost as if it’s a snapshot, with all of it one image. I think of these paintings as anti-history paintings because they don’t exist in history and they’re really more about current things that I read about and I’m witnessing. But a history painting packs everything in, like Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People. I mean, you’ve got everything about the French Revolution in that one image and all the different aspects reveal themselves.

Rail: And that’s what you’re trying to do in your own way.

Taylor: Yeah.

Rail: But at the same time, you’re not going to have an allegorical figure like Liberty. I mean you can say these people are CEO’s, but I think we have to discover that. It’s a history painting that doesn’t announce itself, which is different than the Delacroix painting. Now, in the inlay pieces, like the one of the two men in the SUV shooting at a deer that has wandered into the suburbs, there’s something awful and funny about the image. Maybe these guys are on their way to go hunting in the so-called country, but suddenly they don’t have to go that far because the world has changed…

Taylor: It’s more convenient. [Laughs]

Rail: Right. And there’s a disconcerting truthfulness to it. You read in the papers about deer, bears and moose wandering into town. What do we do with these animals now that they are living among us? What I like about the narrative is that it’s not closed.

Taylor: Yeah, and that’s incredibly important and that was part of the reason that doing indie comics stopped being fulfilling because the narratives are explicit. I have a concrete narrative with each work that runs through my head while I work on these veneer pieces because they take so long; I kind of need to entertain myself. So I get to the point where I’ve got a back story. But, it’s very important to keep it open because these works can be looked at from different angles; there are multiple perspectives and multiple subjects.

Rail: Narrative has a beginning, middle and end but I would say your work shares something with science fiction because the viewer can’t figure out what preceded this moment or what’s going to happen next. What’s interesting is that in your paintings and wood pieces you collapse time, you shuffle past, present, and future around.

Taylor: Definitely.

Rail: And what is this world we do live in and why is this world that we’re looking at both familiar and unfamiliar? Like, what is it about the familiarity that we may not want to recognize and what is it about the unfamiliarity that we do want to recognize.

Taylor: And there’s a tension in that which is important.

Rail: Right, we can’t say, “Oh! That’s what that’s about,” and walk away.

Taylor: I want viewers to struggle to interpret it and maybe even bring their own meaning to it from their own experiences.

Rail: I also think that the paintings are like dioramas. None of it is true, and yet everything feels true.

Taylor: I really love dioramas.

Rail: I feel like this painting we’ve been talking about has a kind of diorama effect, I mean, it has this foreground where most of the story’s taking place, and you feel like you’re looking at this entire world.

Taylor: Right. The paintings are set up like that.

Rail: Ok, and as a diorama you ask, “What was the larger world that this world exists in.”

Taylor: Because it’s the larger world that’s the problem, really. It’s the people that are off to the side of the painting that issue these commands, and they’re the ones that we should really be concerned about.

Rail: So it’s about what’s inside the painting and what’s outside the painting.

Taylor: There’s a hierarchy and the very top is invisible as in a corporate structure. Maybe less so now with the politicizing of CEO’s, who have faces now when they do something wrong, but for the large part there is still an invisible structure that is functioning.

Rail: All right, there’s a preoccupation with the invisible corporate structure in the paintings, but in the wood veneer pieces it’s different.

Taylor: They are meant to be more documentary but they’re just as constructed, as the paintings, even when they feel like scenes from everyday life, like mundane moments.

Rail: They are mundane moments, but, at the same time, there’s something wrong with this mundane moment.

Taylor: Right. [Laughs]

Rail: Like what’s wrong with this picture is partly what this picture is about, because there are two guys shooting at a deer from an SUV on a suburban street. You are doing the anti-version of mounting the moose head on the wall. There’s nothing noble about this hunt. It is, “hey, let’s drive around and shoot the deer that’s wandering down Main Street.”

Taylor: Yeah, I’m sure a real hunter who eats every part of what they kill would look at these guys and think they’re ruining it for everyone.

Rail: Nothing should be wasted.

Taylor: Ray, my mom’s boyfriend, used to hunt, and we used to eat everything and we’d have some intense sausage made out of the innards. I bet the person who eats factory farmed meat doesn’t think twice about the animal. I’m a vegetarian so I don’t eat any meat, and I find it interesting the way so many people will immediately jump on hunters who kill the food they eat.

Rail: There’s no didactic message in this piece. It’s not saying this is bad, it’s saying this is, which I think is very different and I think that’s one of the other interesting aspects of your work is that you’re not really passing judgment. You’re being an observer of what happens. And what you make of it, you, the viewer, is your decision. I’m not telling you how to think about it, I’m not telling you, this is the way it is.

Taylor: Dogmatism in painting—telling people what to think or believe—never works for me.

Rail: And I think in that, while your paintings may be construed initially as being social or political critiques, I don’t think that’s their deepest or only impulse.

Taylor: I’m really angry about what’s going on right now, as we all are.

Rail: Not all of us. [Laughs]

Taylor: Yeah, there’s Nevada. [Laughter]

Rail: Let’s talk about the differences between the paintings, which evoke a made-up world, and the wood veneer pieces, which are about modern life.

Taylor: I think that these paintings have to exist in a nowhere land or else they would become incredibly didactic. I’ve had to invent this world where these things happen, but in the wood inlays, the world has to be recognizable. The medium is so overwhelming that I want everything to be incredibly familiar. The subjects, the narratives, the places, the foliage—I want them to be familiar because the medium is not so familiar to the modern viewer. Whereas, with painting, painting is incredibly familiar so that it is an area I can elaborate, and make an unfamiliar world even if the ideas of the core are something we’re probably thinking about everyday.

Rail: Right. In the painting, you construct or invent this entire world with, as you say, its own internal logic, and in the wood veneer pieces you’re literally constructing the world, but the materials give you all sorts of other ways into an otherwise familiar place. That’s two major aspects of your work. And in the veneer pieces, which you actually construct, the viewer is apt to say, oh this is somewhat familiar, but then, on another level, everything about it is not familiar. I mean we have to wrap our brain around both tacky wood veneer interiors, jigsaw puzzles, which used to be made of wood, and a highly demanding craft that was meant for royalty.

Taylor: Yeah, both sides of my practice have long histories to contend with and I’m definitely talking about those histories. They’re important. The people that are portrayed in the inlays aren’t the kind of people that were historically portrayed with this fancy medium. So that’s why there’s some tension between their world and the medium that they’re represented in.

Rail: And how do you go about establishing the world we encounter in the inlays?

Taylor: I start with a mediated version of automatic drawing to co-mingle things I’ve read about, things I’ve witnessed and things I’ve imagined and that’s where it starts. I just do tons of the automatic drawing. It’s not subconscious because I know what I’m throwing into the mix; I’m just letting it bat around for a while in order to see what comes out.

Rail: Some surrealists used to put down a material, paint or ink, and then look for the images that it conjured up. In your case, it’s like you’re putting the images out to see what can be built up.

Taylor: Yes, I use the drawings to find out how things come in to make a composition that actually represents something.

Rail: In that sense, there’s no overarching starting point, no omniscient viewpoint.

Taylor: No, no. Sometime I might have feeling or inkling about something and then I bat it around with other ideas and things. God, who was it that said, Take something, do something to it, do something else.

Rail: Jasper Johns.

Taylor: Right. I have sketchbooks full of bad stick figures sketches and I’ll come up with a composition that’s really straight, and I’m like, ok, this needs something to be done to it. Narrative needs to be twisted and then maybe twisted again.

Rail: That makes a lot of sense to me because it seems to me that there’s something both straightforward and not straightforward about your work, that’s one of their visual tensions. I mean another thing in this painting is that all these people are looking off. They’re not looking at the boat; they’re looking off the canvas, right?

Taylor: [Laughs] Right.

Rail: Well what are they looking at? And what’s approaching or what’s coming and if you read it from left to right, and the left is the past and the right is the future, there is a sense that the future hasn’t arrived yet. And that gives the painting a grim underside, because what we can’t see is likely to be far bleaker than anything we can see.

Taylor: Right.

Rail: And you’re suggesting, as bleak as this world is, there’s something approaching that could be bleaker.

Taylor: Well, it might switch.

Rail: It could be that the future’s going to be better, but it’s left to the viewer to decide what future is going to approach.

Taylor: Yes.

Rail: In that way, the painting proposes that the viewer has to become active rather than passive.

Taylor: Yeah, I want my viewer to be active, both in looking and then thinking about and doing.

Rail: These paintings aren’t just to be looked at. There is an underlying suggestion that we have something to do with what happens next in the narrative and that we should consider that. It is true in the wood veneer, too, because what world allows two guys in an SUV to shoot a deer in the middle of town?

Taylor: Yeah, there are a lot of different options. An image like that raises issues of invasion and occupation as well as our relationship to the natural world.

Rail: I think that’s one aspect of your painting work that is pretty essential in that it does say that what happens next is something you have to think about.

Taylor: Yeah.

Rail: In this other inlay with two women in it, one is poking holes in a can, while the other has a film container, and there’s a power plant in the background. What this has in common with two hunters is the pursuit of pleasure. I mean hunting is a pleasure, right?

Taylor: Yeah, but there’s a lot of other things. I think the two pieces could be two overlapping spheres. In the hunter one there are all kinds of other issues, you know, occupying nature, suburban sprawl, over consumption and SUVs. And with the girls in the desert with a power plant, it’s a search for solace in an inhospitable environment. But it is true that they’re both pursuing pleasure.

Rail: That’s a critique, isn’t it, because they suggest that the pursuit of pleasure may be an escape from the situation? You didn’t know you were criticizing your own generation, did you?

Taylor: No, I’m also criticizing the baby boomers because they started it all.

Rail: It’s all of us in the sixties taking all those drugs.

Taylor: [Laughs] Somehow we got the drugs but we didn’t get the activism.

Rail: How long does it take you to do one these pieces?

Taylor: There are hundreds of pieces in every piece. And I told you what a slow painter I am.

Rail: And you want a hundred pieces.

Taylor: I need to use these beautiful and awesome techniques to get people to look at these images that are kind of disturbing. And the beauty of the materials is the way in. There are lots of people who wouldn’t look at them, probably, if they didn’t have that aesthetic reaction. They would probably go no further into the subject matter.

Rail: Yes, we become fascinated by the technique and that pulls us into the piece. And once you’re pulled in, we have to consider what you have depicted? It’s the opposite of formalist painting where, supposedly, beauty pulled us into the beauty. And you’re completely upending that and saying that I’m going to pull you into something that’s the opposite of what the technique is.

Taylor: Yeah, the surface and the subject are at odds with each other.

Rail: I also think that’s true of your paintings. For example, you don’t say, ‘I’ll distort in order to show you the world is distorted and fucked up.” That’s redundant.

Taylor: Yeah, I think we’ve already assimilated that visual language and what it can tell us. I’m not saying that it’s all been done with expressionist painting. I would never say that about anything. People think that everything’s been done with painting.

Rail: Those are usually people that have never painted.

Rail: How do you see your work in relationship to painters, like Elizabeth Peyton and John Currin?

Taylor: I definitely relate more to people like Kara Walker and Georgeanne Deen—she’s my mentor. And Andrea Zittell has also been a really big influence.

Rail: Yes, but in contrast to Walker, you aren’t interested in caricature. Whoever these people in the inlay pieces are, and however odd they are because they are made of wood, there is no caricature of them.

Taylor: No, it doesn’t really have any place in my work. I want to create real people, real subjects.

Rail: All the poses are really particular. The individuals in your pieces aren’t represented as types.

Taylor: It used to drive me crazy in comics. A lot of people would draw all girls with the same face. Types can be useful in some work, if it is something that you are pointing out or critiquing. But unintentionally, it’s just unfair to the subject. It’s important to create an expression or physiognomy that would not require any immediate reading.


John Yau


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2006

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