The title piece of Taylor Wright’s collection of ten paintings at Bountiful Davis Art Center is The Bell That Never Rings, a verbal paradox that labels a visual riddle. To be sure, there is a heavy brass bell, its shiny surface reflecting the view out a window where the (invisible) viewer’s reflection ought to be. Then there’s a skull lying on its side, its jawbone unhinged. Behind these two are a chalice, seemingly carved from semi-precious stone, and an ornamental vase made of some dark material. All four objects reflect each other in their polished surfaces, though despite a bright, low level light, the scene is dark overall. The easiest thing to say about it is that this sparse, formal still life was painted under the influence, direct or in general, of the Baroque master Caravaggio.
Taylor Wright’s paintings have other qualities that would surely be anachronisms if they hadn’t long since been established as recurring tropes in American painting. At first glance, they create a feeling of super-realism bordering on trompe l’oeil — painting that fools the eye with its optical presence. Like photographs, they invite the viewer to see right through the image and believe themselves instead to be in the presence of the actual thing it represents. In a time of expressionistic painting, where the brushstrokes tell us not just what we are looking at, but how the artist feels about it, this work takes us back to Dutch genre realism from the era of Vermeer, to Baroque masters like Francisco de Zurbarán, and to 19th century French and American illusionists, among others. Wright’s vision differs from Pop Art, another era of straightforward realism, in that while Pop is amoral, celebrating without judging the things it shows, Wright’s canvases share with the viewer a sense of unease about things that is elusive, hard to pin down, but clearly present. It’s not what today’s pop audience is looking for in an age of “anything goes,” and may even offend viewers uncomfortable with feeling the art is looking back at them, perhaps asking for agreement with a moral point of view. But a truly open eye and mind will find much to ponder, if not always to agree with, in these ten canvases.
The painting titled “A Bell That Never Rings” could make the same point as René Magritte’s signature 20th-century work, “The Treachery of Images,” which displays a tobacco pipe under which is written “This Is Not a Pipe.” Sure, you can’t ring a painted bell any more than you can smoke a painted pipe. But Magritte now owns that point. And why would the painting be titled after only one of four nearly equal subjects? What if the title refers as much to the meticulously-detailed, upset skull lying next to the bell? Skulls used to be popular symbolic objects in painting, meant to remind us all that we are mortal and will one day die. But my death is a part of someone else’s life, not of mine, which ends when it happens. So the mortal alarm is no more likely to ring for us than the painted bell. In fact, our world is full of alarm bells that never ring. Who heard the alarm on 9-11, or in burning Paradise, California? Or what about the victory bell that will declare the triumph we built our lives around? Perhaps the bell that never rings is the one we spend our lives in service to, that neither saves us nor pays off. Isn’t it time we acknowledged that bell?
It remains a challenge to understand just why Taylor Wright paints so many modern subjects in such an antique style, mixing traditional decor like candles, flowers, cut glass, and engraved silver with such modern subjects as flashlights, spent cartridges and a milk carton with a “Missing” advertisement. His technical achievement is substantial, at least so far as his ability to convincingly render materials and surfaces. Not only the objects he favors with his gaze, but the tables on which they sit and the fabrics that drape them are immediately present and identifiable. There don’t seem to be enough parallels between old and new to make a point about historical cycles, so if he’s just painting what he likes to paint or enjoys seeing painted, and doesn’t insist his audience enjoy it as much as he does, who can deny him? I once made a painting I called “Seascape With Dreadful Red Wine,” so how do I say anything negative about those Wright calls “Still Life with Predation and Impunity,” “Still Life with Spent Munitions,” or “Still Life With Casual Futility.” Except, that is, to say that his antique skill has clearly been put in service of taking an unsentimental look at our lives today. It’s hard for a given time to see itself reflected in a cool eye. Maybe the audience that will fully appreciate him is still learning how to look at art. They could do a lot worse than to take a lesson from The Bell That Never Rings.
Taylor Wright: The Bell That Never Rings, Bountiful Davis Art Center, Bountiful, through Sept. 11.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.