Phillip Taaffe at Gagosian
January 16 to February 20
555 West 24th Street, between Tenth and Eleventh avenues,
New York City, 212-741-1111
Phillip Taaffe has made ample use of symmetry since he burst on the 1980’s scene with ravishing reconsiderations of 60’s hard-edge abstraction. At the time, Taaffe’s backward glance was seen as contemporary critique; that Barnett Newman, Frank Stella, and Bridget Riley, et al., were speaking the same essentially decorative language of multiplication, centering and mirroring seemed as much Taaffe’s point as the renewal of painting as a luxuriously complex optical medium. That renewal, however, is now in full force, never more so than in Taaffe’s current show of works on paper at Gagosian, in which an astonishing pictorial super-symmetry comes to fruition.
It has long been apparent that Taaffe was looking past Neo Geo, Appropriation, and Pattern and Decoration to a wunderkabinet of natural science diagrams, world ornament, alchemical symbolism and countless other visual templates that could be endlessly combined, by resolutely pre-Photoshop-Clone-Stamp means, into improvisatory amalgams of painterly intelligence and effect. Working with paper has now allowed Taaffe to add two especially dynamic decorator’s tricks to his arsenal: marbling and folding.
Traditional endpaper marbling involves suspending pigments in mutually resistant fluids so that they segregate into accidental paisley by chemical repulsion. Taaffe has mastered the guild secrets of this art, but he has also learned to bend it to an uncanny effect found in paintings by Kurt Strahm, William Wood, Greg Stone, David Reed, and Ross Bleckner, implementing a shallow optical bleed that embosses the image, like the raking light of a scanning electron micrograph. This eerily photographic illusion is left unimpeded in a few works such asParhelion and Rubedo de Nigro (all works mentioned 2007), where imprinted patterns read as negative highlights surrounded by palpable, toothy furrows. Georgia O’Keefe’s eroding cliffs, Renaissance drapery as beheld by an altered Aldous Huxley, or microbotanical corals may come to mind.
Of the nearly 70 works on view, about half combine this technique with the iconophilic artist’s more familiar linocut motifs, knifed dervish-swirls, or fossil-like imprints. These seem, for the most part, like sketches, and none approach the stunning insect-chorus resonance of the large paintings he showed at Gagosian in 2007.
This is where symmetry comes in: the remainder of the works in the current show amplify Taaffe’s other techniques with Rorschach-style mirror folding, begetting – and I mean this as extreme praise – three dozen of the best Grateful Dead album covers imaginable.
A vertical fold is most usual, as in a grouping of five small monochromes, among themTimoresen-Schadel. Small tweaks and wipes along the bilateral axis spiralize the anthropomorphism a bit, but legible skull and spine imagery tends to evoke a crypt wall of penitents’ bones cemented into exquisite filigrees.
A horizontal fold will read, even more unavoidably, as landscape and reflection. But how many worlds away is Island of Fernanando Po from Monet’s Seine with poplars? Rather, Taaffe has conjured a claustrophobic ayahuasca vision of hovering jungle spirits mirrored in stagnant waters. They menace below as much as above.
Two works employ a columnar structure of three vertical folds which recalls Bruce Conner’s paradigmatic inkblot totems, to which Taaffe adds his prowess as a colorist. The lurid bursts of super-saturated primaries in Tropicolobus give it the intensity of a dye-transfer print of a shooting gallery at a Mexican carnival, while the faded traces of Altamura could be mistaken for a tinted daguerreotype of gothic hobgoblins carved from ivory.
Three “mandalas” are the centerpiece of the show. In each, diagonals and orthogonals are reflected to approach a kaleidoscopic, eight-part symmetry. But look closely and you will discover that top and bottom differ appreciably. As with all Taaffe’s folds, discrepancies of color and smear animate the squiggling, crustaceous mass, but the mandalas’ horizontal mirroring appears to have been made before changes reflected across the other three folds. In a word, Taaffe’s symmetry is complex; it is hierarchical and non-transitive, with rhythmic repeats and variations akin to the vibrant ingenuity of a post-Gupta Hindu temple or one of Ernst Haeckel’s baroque radiolarians. If Taaffe (and perhaps Frank Stella before him) once implied that the terms of ornament are the only terms, the mandalas, along with numerous other works in this remarkable exhibition, hit a bull’s-eye. Their muscular grooves embed the geometric inevitability of a Stella or a Ken Noland target with scintillating ripples of structural enthrallment down to the infinitesimal, and their rings of opiated, spectral color osmose directly into corresponding cortices of the brain.
Taaffe’s pure decorativeness nevertheless embraces, almost as fetish, the visible husks of signs – more than ever with his explicitness about skulls in the folded works, whether appropriated wholesale or constructed from doublings of other pressed imagery. Add unnatural natural history titles such as Nepenthe, Dracanculus or the aforementioned Island of Fernanando Po – more like Edgar Allen Poe – and a rhetoric of contemporary vanitas seems insisted on, in the manner of some of Jung’s newly-seen Red Book phantasmagorias, Bruce Pearson’s meticulously trippy palindrome paintings, and yes, Rick Griffin’s AoxomoxoA cover art. The common thread is an orderly exuberance that induces, like a latter-day Tibetan or Churrigueresque ultra-baroque, an occult spiritual high of vivid excess, as demonic as it is divine.
And yet Taaffe leaves us with a sophisticated aftertaste of Richter-ish ambiguity. Only by exploiting a toolbox of laborsaving tricks and devices could he have produced such a prolific output of visual overload so quickly. How much Jiu-Jitsu is in Taafe’s flirtation with manufacture? Here’s one way to think about it: I once overheard a tour guide at La Cartuja, an unsurpassably intricate 18th-century chapel in Granada, compare the plaster mold work unfavorably to the nearby Alhambra, where, he claimed, all was hand carved. In fact, mold marks are detectable on lesser wall panels at the Alhambra, but the common-sense idea that ornament depends on drudgery is naïve. A will to efficiency can be the mother of invention.