On ViewLuhring Augustine
November 12–December 22, 2022
In Philip Taaffe’s exhibition currently on view at Luhring Augustine, the artist explores the transcendent possibilities of symmetry and visual density. Through a series of prismatic mandalas, Taaffe’s mixed media works on panel set up painting as a form of New Materialist meditation, a relational way of seeing the world that challenges anthropocentrism and probes the ethics of our engagement with non-human kin. Taaffe’s aesthetic picks up alternative visual lineages, by turns acting as an ecologically-minded offshoot of the Pattern and Decoration movement or an update to the Arts and Crafts movement that accommodates digital editing processes and attendant metaphors of alienation rooted in glitches and formal aberration.
The repetition and symmetry in Taaffe’s work isn’t employed to stabilize any kind of authority, but instead cultivates a sublime density meant to evoke the quasi-spiritual impulse to reverence within abstraction. If the mandala sets up a system of priority that focuses our attention and slows our experience of time, here Taaffe creates an ecological meditation that wades into streams of sturgeons, mollusks, shells, and corals before exploring overgrowths of spiders, insects, and tree frogs. In his book The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World, David Abram outlines the purpose of magic, which he describes, through the non-Western and indigenous roots of this cultural technology, as any process that opens up an individual’s subjectivity to the natural world, to the concerns of trees and rivers and non-human intelligences. The role of the shaman, Abram explains, is to open up these sympathies to our environment—Taaffe may be engaging in a similar conceptual process.
However, Taaffe complicates what could read as shamanistic sincerity through his process, which also evokes the mechanisms of categorization and perception that have informed our ways of looking since the Enlightenment. Using lithography, stamping, and transferring, the artist generates dense overlays of color, depicting biota and communities of sentience that have been historically marginalized by humanity’s arbitrary separation from nature. When Taaffe’s images retain static clarity, we can see that his archives draw from the types of images seen in taxonomic encyclopedias. The original images, which privilege classification over affect, sit on the picture surface like arranged curios, prismatic cabinets of curiosities that use the white of their support to create the effect of backlighting, as if they were viewed on screens. The images and color separate and overlap like broken RGB channels.
The installation of the exhibition further reinforces a ritual process of looking, and carefully organizes Taaffe’s work into cycles or strophes. The tall “Columnar Figures” evoke molecular Brancusis or coral Asawas, and operate in a way similar to the transepts of monastic architecture. The columns provide thin caesuras that group sets of paintings, forming them into visual stanzas that echo and inform each other. While the paintings still function as discreet and individual works, their power is often generated by their ability to inform larger grids and systems. The installation gestures towards Taaffe’s earliest conceptual investigations within painting, and still carry the methodical approach to pastiche and post-modern critiques of authorship that he utilized in his early years when ventriloquizing the painterly gestures of others. Taaffe’s arrangement of his works signals the conceptual nature of his painting practice: each work annotates a larger field of information and is reliant on its proximity to others. The installation itself becomes an allegory of post-humanist ideals, extending the considerations of the individual to that of the collective. While the particular experience of each work is rewarding, it is its place in a larger context that conjures a real meditative potential. The grid that includes Prior Pedro (2022), for example, uncouples indexical marks from representational imagery, developing an abstraction from the stamping of natural textures, without any intervention of the brush.
In a side room Luhring Augustine has installed a series of small, temporally complex, works on paper. Removed from the dense layering of the works on view in the larger gallery, they reveal strange relationships to time and sincerity that keep their distance throughout the rest of the exhibition. On small, shaped pieces of paper, familiar but indistinct images shift between shells and cellular matrices. Each untitled monoprint evokes the fragments or specimens one might find on the tables of da Vinci’s studio, but presented with the aid of flatbed scanners and electron microscopes. When Taaffe’s references are clearest, they form dialectics between the image and the painterly gesture, which here registers as a kind of metaphysical retrieval of experience from the affectless rhetoric of scientific observation. The artist sees something in historical currents like the Arts and Crafts Movement that is ready to be reawakened and used to address our contemporary relationship with nature, a task Taaffe accomplishes here with meditative urgency.