Photograph by Paul D’Agostino
Paintings though they most certainly are, there’s something about Philip Taaffe’s five massive works currently on view at Luhring Augustine Bushwick (through April 26th) that makes them seem, individually as well as collectively, like something other than merely paintings. There’s also something about them that makes them seem very well suited for display in a sort of gallery of Natural History—in the future, that is, when networks of galleries might exist to augment, or feed into, museums devoted to the same—rather than one that showcases merely art. Moreover, a couple of these paintings in particular led at least this viewer to long, however implausibly, for Pangaea.
Massive is one way to describe the scale of these process-heavy, fathomlessly stratified works by the seasoned painter. Monumental, however, would be more accurate, as it pertains not only to their size but also to their content. Over several decades, Taaffe’s ever-evolving abstractions have ranged with great broadness in terms of chromatics and formal elements alike, and these new pieces take things further in such directions by digging far deeper into the artist’s signature turf. Generally eschewing figuration of any properly-so-called sort, Taaffe depicts probings, indirect reflections, reconfigurations, and symbolistically inflected refractions of the trappings of Nature, or of the World—of the abundant and fundamentally curious stuff, that is, that surrounds, begets and informs our very awarenesses of our own ‘figured’ forms. Axiomatically or not, viewers of Taaffe’s works flesh out their lacking presence in his spheres of abstraction via their act of viewing, their manner of ingress into his visual allegory into which they readily factor. As such, the grand scale of these particular works dwarfs beholders into a mode and place of reverence with even greater fixity, an effect further enhanced by the altar-like, polyptych layout of the works, in which a trio of imposing vertical canvases are flanked by stroll-along worthy horizontals. Taking them in properly might not require genuflection, but their size and compositional elements might well force you to take a seat. It will help to feel somewhat grounded when, for instance, the hypnotically layered coilings in Spiral Painting II lull you gently into a state of near vertigo, or when a blazing band of blue and red patterning bursting forth from Nocturne With Architectural Fragments seizes your attentiveness enough to shake your balance.
Paintings, though? Yes, sure. Yet there’s an almost ineffable otherness to these works that is as wondrous to regard as it is tough to pin down. Their maker’s intervening hand, for instance, much like his species’s interloping form, seems largely absent—layered screen-printings and similarly duplicatory processes make this materially possible, while the works’ content as described here makes it conceptually relevant—but that’s not all there is to these paintings’ overt strangeness. Their self-inscriptive, self-encrypted palettes and formal vocabularies make them insular, perhaps even introspective—diorama-like, insofar as somewhat narrative, variably populated, self-contained—yet their singularity goes beyond that as well. Architectural, ostensibly molecular references come to mind, but so do conjectural theologies. Compositional implants in certain pieces beg archeological detection, indeed excavation, while other canvases read like towering slides under gargantuan microscopes, or huge images transmitted from distant telescopes. The histories they contain are natural, though it might be that Nature has yet to catch up: their ‘now’ is beyond chronology; their ‘here’ is a nowhere; their implanted trappings are ‘ours’ and they’re not. Strands of formal DNA wind deeply into these works, much like our chemical forms of the same spiral further back into time than we do.
Perhaps pangs of nostalgia for Pangaea, at some cognitive extreme, aren’t so implausible after all. Perhaps galleries of Natural History will exist one day, brimming with art. Perhaps Taaffe’s ‘mere’ paintings are simply, in a word, Paintings.
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