The vast gray landscapes in “Spillover,” Katherine Taylor‘s solo exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia, speak of quietly brewing calamity. As the artist commented in a recent gallery talk, “Disaster is existent at all times.”
This body of work, the result of a year-long Working Artist Project fellowship, captures the looming feeling that things could fall apart at any moment, that perhaps they have already fallen apart and we have simply failed to realize it.
Taylor does not envision a biblical apocalypse, but rather a barely perceptible, almost tranquil erosion of geological stability, of place, of human control. In “Construction Phase Atlanta,” a nondescript building is engulfed by a saturated atmosphere of gray fog. Construction remnants are mired and abandoned in the foreground.
The remarkable quality of light in these muted landscapes is the primeval luminosity that comes before or after a huge storm — ominous precisely because it seems so still and quiet. Representation itself seems to disintegrate in the wake of creeping disaster. In “Park Median” a lamp post is just visible in the aftermath of a flooding rain. The sharply delineated triangle of the median appears uncomfortably imposed in this smoky, streaked world. It hovers between a washed sky and standing water — an awkward human attempt to define boundaries and space.
Horizons are a prominent feature of most of these works, and Taylor is quite ingenious in her ability to render their nuances. Some are sharp, non-negotiable lines; others bleed. Regardless of their quality, they split the canvases in two and create a state of tension. In “Gulf View Interchange Exit,” the horizon is a disturbingly stark, black line that separates a pale sky from a metallically glaring band of water. Angular applications of black paint at the base of the work suggest both a retaining wall and an oil slick. In “Cantilever Roadway,” the horizon glimmers with light, and the brushwork in the foreground creates a blur of motion, as when landscape is experienced from the window of a speeding car.
When Taylor was a student in my liberal arts classes at the Atlanta College of Art during the late ’80s, we sometimes compared notes about the singular atmosphere of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, her birthplace and my family’s vacation spot. This fragile, magical environment had been under siege by human junk — carnivals, miniature golf concessions, pizza joints, casinos — for decades. The shallow water of the Gulf, barely fit to wade in, was often the color of weak tea. A sulfur smell from nearby springs turned up in the drinking water.
But the air was soft, enveloping and mysterious, and tourists of all sorts came for a weekend of escape. In “Freeboard,” the balance has tipped toward total desolation: a carefully illuminated pool ladder drops down into a field of black scum, where it casts a spectral reflection.
The confrontation between geometrical human constructions and the watery, primordial qualities of nature described in these paintings results in a gray stalemate that is fraught with peril. In “Floodplain,” the gray separates into breaking light on one side of the canvas and a looming black sky and the spray of a dark breaker on the other. A flatly painted, trapezoidal inlet is bound by a breakfront rendered with staccato vertical repetitions of thickly applied paint. The inlet seems dead and inert, but there is danger all around it.
“I wanted to allow the paint to come forward and act,” said Taylor during her talk. Indeed, this exhibit is as much about textures of paint as it is about the peculiar light of natural disaster. The watery skies, the gravelly renderings of earth, the thick, halting streaks of oil or other human interventions are all in dialogue.
The absence of this dialogue in “Grand Design Performing Landscape” — the show’s largest piece, painted in acrylic on four aluminum panels — makes it qualitatively different from the other works in the show. The starkness of the horizon has become literal division and metal has replaced water and sky. The intent, Taylor indicated, was to “push geometry forward” and move into a more abstract realm emphasizing “the materiality of the paint.” While this could be an important next step in Taylor’s evolving visual explorations, I regret the loss of the atmospheric depth that distinguishes the works in oil on canvas.
Complementing the large paintings in this exhibit are two intriguing series of small paintings. One group, “Aggregate Views,” could be seen as studies for “Grand Design Performing Landscape.” In these smaller works, the texture of the paint in the geometrical shapes is really quite dynamic.
The small works in oil on linen and canvas include a number of gems. “Water Park,” the central work of this grouping, includes many of the features that make the larger works powerful and profound. (Through January 18.)