Kudlek Gallery, Cologne Exhibition September 2019:
Taborn recently exhibited a number of ‘book’ works in a mixed exhibition entitled, “Judging the Cover” at the Kudlek Gallery.
The River Magazine, Summer 2019
In his last published work, The Three Ecologies, the influential psychoanalyst and cultural theorist, Felix Guattari, makes art an essential paradigmatic site for what he calls a new ecology of mind. For Guattari, the enemy is scientific rationalism and the way in which it configures itself in the information society. This has worked to dissolve human subjectivity, making us prey to the integrated system that is world capitalism. He further argues that as an essential counter-measure we must learn to abandon scientific paradigms and return to aesthetic ones. Life must become… like a performance, one must construct it, work at it, singularize it. Just as the best artists approach each new work in a spirit of adventure, we must also teach ourselves to reject overly deterministic, pseudo-scientific procedures in favour of more free-wheeling poetic ones. For Guattari, too, art is inescapably a first order, ‘hands-on’, material practice, and in the footnotes to The Three Ecologies he refers the reader to the writings of Francisco Varela who sees art as a form of auto-poiesis and therefore a part of the machinic order. In this respect, Varela suggests, it demonstrates its own internal necessity – is, axiomatically, both ‘productive’ and ‘reproductive’ – its main purpose being that of wresting complex forms from chaotic material.
Such a formulation might well have been written to describe the work of David Taborn. As a painter – and despite all of his heroic attempts to escape painting’s flatness over the years, a painter he stubbornly remains – there is no one who has cast painting more conspicuously and more joyously as a material practice. Taborn’s work employs an almost bewildering range of different substances, raw-materials, techniques and processes and it is this aspect of his work which first captures our attention. We are immediately caught up in the struggle that he wages with the object in order to bring all of this diverse range of material properties to heel. But it is the fact that he is able not only to tame these elements but also bring them firmly within a readable visual order of great complexity that makes his work so compelling and gives it a longer and much slower burn. These are works which come to the eye quickly but live on in the imagination for a long time afterwards as lucid as well as highly complex visual organisms. And it is this linguistic complexity which gives a weightiness and a precarious (in the past I have used the word dangerous) stability to Taborn’s work.
Some artists are attracted to pictorial complexity for neurotic reasons, others for some often quite mistaken notion of veracity, but there are also those who see complexity as a way through to a different kind of unity, in Guattarian terms, to a new kind of ‘singularity’. Taborn belongs to this last category. He is much wedded to the alchemical metaphor of the homunculus. The childlike figure who comes into existence out of sight of the Alchemist within the alchemical vessel and appears with all of its characteristics intact. This image fascinates Taborn, first of all because of the idea of (self) containment that such a hierurgy implies and secondly because it suggests a highly individuated process of ‘coming into being’. One which is driven from within the occurrence itself.
The implications of the homunculus as a metaphoric model for the making of a painting are fascinating. The traditional idea of painterly containment in which everything is determined in relationship to the canvas edge… as a flattened topology, in other words… is suddenly transformed into a three-dimensional model. What is envisaged is a conceptually elliptical space or skin within which the elements that act together to form the image are endlessly moving and jostling with each other. Here animated complexity is, indeed, made to serve machinic principles as the image makes (produces) and continuously remakes (reproduces) itself in the eye and mind of the viewer. But the homunculus metaphor has even more startling consequences for the notion of style.
Before modernity style was conceived as a horizontal, evolutionary principle occurring throughout the working life of an artist. It was legitimate then to speak of the life of an artist in terms of stylistic periods: early, middle and late, for example. As Roland Barthes pointed out in Writing Degree Zero, modernity changed this into a vertical system… a kind of shopping list. Style became a matter of choice. A writer could choose to write, a painter could choose to paint, in different styles, sometimes switching quite dramatically between works. By contrast the homunculus model radicalises the idea of style even further by removing from it any sense of a continuum (even a negative one). The stylistic character of each new work is the subject of an ongoing negotiation that becomes the inner life, the conceptual content – if you like – of the work itself. Taborn, when talking about his work, often uses the metaphor of the portrait. For him, individual works have individual characters; characters which have been acquired, ultimately, from within the making of the works themselves. But the metaphor also suggests a form of ‘doubling’ which is part of the homunculus model too: the idea that somehow the works have enjoyed some kind of prior state of existence.
Alchemically speaking, the homunculus stands for the unity that underpins all ‘singularities’, in other words, it stands for the idea of unity per se. In the domain of language this would point to that phenomenologically indefinable aspect of Language, that aspect which makes all languages accessible (or translatable) to each other. By deploying this model, then, Taborn seems to be suggesting that while style can be rendered ephemeral – can even be abandoned as a legitimate artistic preoccupation – the underlying values that shape and give identity to the painting as a work of art must be rigorously adherend to, even foregrounded. The ‘doubling’, then, serves as a reiteration of values standing above and beyond superficial general characteristics as well as the peculiarities of individual works.
Coming face to face with David Taborn’s work for the first time is an exciting and immediately enriching perceptual experience. As we have already remarked, these are works which trade quite unashamedly on a bewildering range of manual skills and technical expertise. In this respect they are stunningly effective. But they also demand and reward long and careful looking. They explore and hold up for scrutiny, a whole range of dualities that speak directly to contemporary consciousness. The natural versus the technical. The manual as opposed to the mechanistic. The will to order and the inevitable collapse into disorder. The insistant narrativisation of the making process – of the works becoming – as against simplistic forms of representation or the mere presentation of information. The conflict between repetition and singularity. The tension between the inscriptive order of language and its blank ‘other’ – the mental space that must be made to persist… despite the inrush of information… if inscription is to remain a compelling index of human presence. Where these seemingly irresolvable dualities are concerned, the complex narrativisation of process and the humanistic ‘doubling’ in Taborn’s work, seems to offer some kind of curative resistance to information overload similar to that proposed by Walter Benjamin in his Illuminations: When information supplants the old form, storytelling, and when it (information), in its turn, is made to give way to sensation it reflects upon an imaginary degradation of human experience… Now the traces of the storyteller cling in the way that the hand prints of the potter cling to the clay vessel.
Looking at David Taborn’s work is always fun. This is not for a lack of seriousness on the artist’s part. But that we should feel such enjoyment in observing his works, and that this enjoyment should seem unusual, perhaps even uncomfortable, does say something about the way art today is supposed to display its seriousness. Visual pleasure, vivid colour, robust, energetic, sumptuous and demotic forms – such experiences are often thought of as trivial or superficial, as somehow ‘merely’ a question of individual gratification or self-indulgence, when there are more sober and pressing matters in the world that art should attempt to address.
But Taborn’s fun is difficult fun, its pleasures are ones born out of effort, and challenge, and don’t offer passive, retiring gratification. Because for all their colour and sheen and sparkle, Taborn’s works never release us from an awareness of their forthright materiality, nor of the compounded energy that has gone into their fabrication, nor of the sustained choreography that has brought together disparate techniques and technologies to produce objects that are already too much to be paintings, and yet cannot quite be described as sculptures. What might they be, then? Asking that question, answering it, also requires an effort. It requires an effort because Taborn’s work plays assiduously with the ways in which we make a distinction between art and ‘ordinary’ objects, between objects and images, and between sculpture and painting.
Taborn has for a long time made what we might call ‘paintings’, but over time this has become an increasingly inadequate description of the things he makes. Dripped, mixed coloured resins, running like molten plastic, poured quick onto sheet steel or mirrored Plexiglas or plywood, then gouged, routed, ground with angle-grinders, inlaid, cut and re-cut, repainted, layered, masked, spray-painted, drilled, objects set-in and mounted behind glass or encased in clear-resin, pipes constructed and welded – the list of operations Taborn performs on these painting-like objects is dizzying. And in the works made recently during his residency at UrbanGlass, Taborn has departed completely from his more habitual wooden armatures, adding to his list of material experiments the qualities of neon light, kiln-fired shaped glass, half-mirror and liquid metal, with the same enthusiastic, forthright wit and humour.
Painting, then, seems far too meagre a description for Taborn’s practice. It’s possible that these objects start from an idea of painting, but they very soon reach the limit of its formal definition, at least in terms of materials; painting seems like a meagre set of options when confronted with Taborn’s cornucopia of material options: just oil paint? Just on canvas? Just stretched on a wooden stretcher? Is that it?
If the formal definitions of painting are quickly exhausted and superseded by Taborn’s heterogeneous combination of materials and techniques, these also quickly exhaust its conceptual definitions. Those old-fashioned preoccupations of late Modernist painting, such as representation, abstraction, flatness, illusionistic depth and the material presence of paint – in other words, all those things that were only really questions when the only question was which way to apply paint to a canvas support – are all made redundant by the expanded repertoire of materials that Taborn brings together in his objects: to talk about representation and abstraction makes little sense when faced with an actual object embedded in the surface. Why talk about the illusion of depth, when actual depth is carved into the physical layering of hard, resin colour, or when your own image stares back at you in the mirror inlaid into the surface, or when the neon light behind the mirror-glass switches on, revealing what was previously hidden.
If they can no longer be called paintings, then how do we describe one of Taborn’s works? A complex thing-on-the-wall which, while not necessarily a painting, starts out from painting to find out where painting stops. A kind of escape from painting. But if it is an escape, it isn’t one that wants to run as far away as possible from the imprisoning confines of painting, into some other form of art-work, nor does it reject the history of modern painting out of hand. Instead, Taborn’s work continuously returns to the starting ideas of Modernist painting, each time to explore how far it can extend its material possibilities before those ideas disappear. Rather than an escape from painting, you could think of Taborn’s things-on-the-wall as the escapology of painting. Escapology, as fans of the Great Houdini will know, isn’t escape from externally imposed constraint to a state of actual freedom, but an entertainment based on the performance of escape from self-imposed constraint, in which the greater the seeming impossibility of escape, the greater the enjoyment derived when the escapologist in fact succeeds.
Taborn’s things-on-the-wall therefore derive their strength – and our enjoyment – from the virtuosity with which they escape the narrow problematic of modern painting, while never letting out of sight the point from which that escape is staged. That’s why, however elaborate, Taborn’s escaping of painting is never an abandonment of painting’s more fundamental questions, but rather the playful and unabashed extension of its terms. It’s not the mere success of escape that is the art of the escapologist, but rather how elaborate and breathtaking the form of the escape, and Taborn’s work offers us bold and unpretentious investigations of modern painting’s ongoing question; the point at which the thing we see becomes more material object than image, and yet still enough of an image not to be seen as a sculpture.
Because for all its optimistic dynamism, Taborn’s work offers us a serious contemplation of certain fundamental issues regarding our relationship to art-works and objects; about how a thing-on-a-wall may or may not be seen as a sculpture, and may or may not be seen as an image. In this, Taborn brings back to contemporary relevance the terminal problem of late modernist painting – the type of abstract painting championed by the critic Clement Greenberg in the 1960s – which foundered on the point at which abstract painting became so flat and uninflected (in the work of the ‘colour field painters’) that it could start to be seen as an object rather than an image, an experience that was more material than it was optical.
It was the work of Frank Stella that famously sets this problem in motion, opening the door to Minimalist art, but it is Stella’s later work – the shallow constructed and painted assemblage-reliefs of the 1980s and 90s – that the dichotomous tension between image and object is most vividly and exuberantly played out. Taborn’s investigations extend this exploration by pushing to extremes the way in which his things-on-the-wall offer themselves as assemblages of objects and materials, while still retaining the possibility of being seen as images. By exploiting both the visual habit of seeing frames on walls as images, as well as the practical condition of how things on walls constrain us to one set of angles (he has never been interested in making free-standing objects we might walk around) Taborn makes an inquiry into how the experience of objects and the experience of images may be combined, rather than set in opposition.
Taborn’s things-on-a-wall could then be described as images-becoming-objects-becoming-images, where previously image-making paint becomes material, and material objects are turned into images of themselves. What they steadfastly do not do is become sculptures. Rather they explore materially what painting could only do by illusion – space, depth, assembly, and arrangement – while remaining on the borderline between image and objects. But in this, Taborn’s sensibility draws on a broader experience than the rarefied dispute that moves painting from representation to abstraction to materiality and the sculptural.
Taborn’s approach, in its sense of pleasure and enthusiasm, shares much of its understanding of the combination of material things and images with what we experience in mainstream culture. It’s in our day-to-day culture that we most experience the energetic combination of images and objects working together, in forms which put objects into the ‘frame’ of various formal ‘scenes’. This is the common world of pinball machines, model racing cars on their circuits, fish in aquaria, clock faces of all sorts, disco lights, back-illuminated animated commercial display units, sports of every kind where the position of the players relates to a designed pitch or court, chess and countless other board games, executive desk toys, Pool tables – the list goes on. These are moments where we fully understand and appreciate the synchronicity that occurs between an object and its own image. It is this world that Taborn’s objects inhabit when they mirror your reflection, stare at you through lenses, blink lights at you, chatter, click, appear and disappear, make noises: objects that use a greater combination of effects and experiences than mere, static paint on a canvas.
Taborn’s art, then, is a sort of cultural escapology too. It releases painting into the world of objects, and releases objects into the world of painting. But by doing so, it releases art from the confines of its own, institutionally-bound definitions, extending it across the divide between art-object and common-objects by exuberantly contaminating painting with the world and sensibilities of ordinary things, just as the visual orchestration of painting – composition, illusion, image – absorb those things into it. If this seems fun, it is down to Taborn’s generous and unrelenting desire to release the pleasures of painting, and the pleasures of our ordinary world into each other.