Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Sunny Taylor Paints the Patterns of a New and Old Life

Installation view of Sunny Taylor’s work at Julie Nester Gallery, featuring, from left, “Luna,” “Totems” and “Retrospect.” Image credit: Geoff Wichert

In spite of the relatively narrow design principles Sunny Taylor has chosen to follow for two decades now, she somehow manages to mix up the results so that within her large body of work, while every Sunny Taylor could only be a Sunny Taylor, each one manages to be unique. It’s the way it is with offspring: genetics simultaneously makes certain that siblings are both alike and yet each an individual, never to be repeated.

That said, there are two panels among the eight currently at Julie Nester in Park City that contrast sharply with the others. Most are organized by a sinuous progress, like a path related to a garden or cathedral maze, rather than like a trail in the woods. Both “Retrospect” and “Black Barn Pattern,” on the other hand, are built of stacked squares rotated to form diamonds. In “Retrospect” — the title suggests memory, often in order to reconsider the past, as well as physically looking back — there is no apparent way forward. Instead, the eye follows lines that bar each other’s progress. In “Black Barn Pattern,” progress, though challenged, is possible: an idea limited by it’s being, except for a few small touches of color, the only painting here in simple black-and-white.

Sunny Taylor, “Black Barn Pattern,” acrylic on panel, 40×34 in., courtesy Julie Nester Gallery

The cliché image of a painter includes a smock, perhaps a beret, a palette, and a brush in hand. Anyone who’s sought out, or chanced upon the online videos of Sunny Taylor at work, typically in her kitchen, will have seen her characteristic tool: the long metal straightedge with which she lays out seemingly acres of geometry, here rectangles that bring to mind the wooden sidewalks of Western towns, the duckboards often used to gain impromptu access to difficult terrain, or obsolete siding salvaged for some utilitarian purpose. 

The New England countryside where Taylor now resides, and which she credits with having inspired this look of recycled building materials, is itself a reclaimed landscape. Among the first parts of North America to be clear cut and turned into farms and mills, its subsequent history has been dominated by economic and agrarian ups and downs, a foretaste of what’s happening everywhere as raw materials and natural resources of every sort are exhausted. The landscape of, say, Massachusetts reveals a patchwork of sparse bits of old growth, cut up by the imprint of development long gone, filled in with bland second growth forests into which incursions have been made for modern homes and businesses. Much of today still recalls the techniques of the past, like a brick mill running along a waterway where today it would use electricity, so that like Taylor’s organizing patterns, smaller lives are made to fit into the grand figures of the past.

These painting makes strong statements when viewed from across the room, but they truly come alive when seen up close. Taylor applies color in just about every way it can be done, but the real reward here is the ways she’s found to make new, firmly attached paint appear both old and sorely weathered, not just peeling but crumbling. In the past, art was the property of wealth and privilege, so the jewel-like brushstroke was something a consumer could learn to admire. Today, everyone has some crafting experience, and the textures of Taylor’s paint read like universal, personal histories. Each painting, in addition to its unique overall organization, has a “matching” texture, including not just details defined by contrasting colors, but places where a new coat of paint appears to have been applied over the rough surface of mismatched boards, a purely tactile, relief sculptural effect. 

Sunny Taylor, “Rust Barn Curves,” acrylic on panel, 27×47 in., image courtesy Julie Nester Gallery

Sunny Taylor has written perceptively and, as befits her subject matter, efficiently about the people that both produced and, in turn, were inflected and informed by the architectural heritage these paintings re-create and re-present. Without taking anything away from her years of exploring geometry in two- and three-dimensional paintings, some of which invoked constructions methods and the structures of buildings they produced, it seems more than possible that here she has found a subject truly suited to her way of painting. The challenge with abstraction, if it’s not merely decorative, is to never lose the connection between subject matter and the clearer, more dynamic forms drawn from it. Here she contemplates survivors, among them women and men with traditional values of hard work and personal responsibility, and the characteristics that enable them to cling to a worthy place, a proven culture, and a way of life that have been bypassed and marooned by globalization and a stark division between unreal wealth and very real poverty. She identifies “thriftiness, brutal honesty, and generosity” among these virtues, and through compositions rooted in what remains, what was kept and what escaped destruction, acknowledges a basic alliance between the land and those who dwell on it. In so doing, she enters their collaboration with a contribution of her own.


Sunny Taylor and Maura Segal, Julie Nester Gallery, Park City, through July 25

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