by April Rapier
Powerful feelings, important wisdom.
Brian Taylor and Linda Robbenolt had back-to-back one person exhibitions in the Houston Center for Photography recently. The following is a review of those two shows.
In approaching a review of art, I prefer to discuss and react, rather than issue a judgment. I am drawn to strong, provocative visions when I think about pictures. This isn't to the exclusion of the subtle: in fact, the more subtle the initiative, the more dynamic the second wave of response. So much work today is trite or derivative or merely bored with itself; a little surprise is a great thing. If one bears with the work of Linda Robbennolt and Brian Taylor, one will find that it contains a level of excitement and stimulation well worth the effort. Resist the temptation for first round dismissal and probe more deeply - the reward is bearing witness to powerful feelings that impart a quiet, important wisdom.
In order to construct a proper evaluation, one must know about the artist, as well as the art, ensuring a more complete understanding of a complex structure. Not knowing either artist, I feel that my own biases and sensibilities can't release as completely. But I do hold enjoyment and intelligent conscientiousness in high regard, and resist the idea that these issues in art are unimportant.
There is a great and pleasant sense of discovery in viewing Brian Taylor's pictures. The messages aren't terribly clear, but neither are they overspoken. A photoeducator at Cal State University, Taylor may or may not maintain an innocent demeanor, but his pictures speak of a wicked sense of humor and the spatial sensibilities of an interplanetary voyeur. At HCP, we see two series of photographs: The Road Series" and "Close to Home". Our first clue to the "Road Series" lies in trusting his titles - for example, in "The Road to Danger", we're not sure what it is exactly that's wrong, but we believe in spite of feeling naive. Incorporating quite a bit of topical manipulation, he has stated that the inclusion of photography in collage/mixed media lends it an authenticity. This amalgam leads to the feeling of being in a museum of natural science, gazing into a diorama, being made privy to something classified, some previously unreleased findings about the most mundane, obvious things in life.
There seem to exist parallel messages, and I feel instructed. (“The Road to Flight" comes to mind here.) They are landscapes in the sense that they're internal routes to discovery (some of the found imagery includes maps, graphs, roads, etc.), yet thepaths end inthe same way a dream ends. Astrong sense ofdesign dominates a hand-made desire. And though this issuccessful in most images, in “The Road to San Andreas" the risk is that the innocence of the idea, the wonder of it is lost to structure and formality. This homage to 1950s graphics incorporates some subtle color trickery, some purely subliminal deceits. Sometimes, materials simply don't integrate or make sense: a problem inherent to collage is the obligatory use of that one thing which would seem to be just right - in this case, the floating postage stamp in “The Road to the Desert", or the SX-70s that feel unfounded, self-conscious, forced.
Occasionally Ihave the feeling of being coerced into a relationship between title and piece that doesn't exist ("Road to History"). In view of the meticulous crafting of ideas with vision, the obscurities are exaggerated. Fortunately the array of techniques is secondary to the piece itself, incidental to its success. The sense of the familiar runs so strongly throughout this series that I expect my favorite characters, best friends to emerge within the image: for those of us whom Dick, Jane, and Spot taught reading, this incorporation of a textbook illustration sensibility causes a primitive cheer to rise ("Road to Night").
Because of the uniform cohesiveness from picture to picture in the "Road Series", and the excellent craftsmanship, one might anticipate an uneasy transition from one series to the next. But for the same reason that skillful production isn't the heart of the "Road Series", neither does the simplicity of tool and design dominate the "Close to Home" series. These pictures are deceptive: Mr. Taylor has pared down to the essentials of traditional photography — the eye and the camera (albeit a $6 toy) and let his sensibilities take over. Quiet emotions run in the lovely, not-too-soft pictures. At first examination, the color would seem to be incidental, but this, too is part of the overall deceit. Feeling too comfortable? Interest straying? Look again - and again. The feelings that seep in linger. Just as the memory often filters a far lovelier picture upon recall, the photographs here function lo serve up, in little doses, memories exactly as we prefer them to have been.
These are the kinds of things we see viscerally, the exact way we see them — bits and pieces of the peripheral things - hauntings and stirrings that allow memory to run a shiver up the spine at the oddest moments. These pictures remind us of what we don't really see, but which forms recall. Herein lie the icons of someone passing by - birds, flying horses, floating women.
A sense of examining a diorama exists in this series as well. For example, in "Homage to Betty, Acapulco", the feeling is that what is seen could never have existed outside memory, and the magic comes from this. The photographs are playful, and gently adamant about their place in a found reality.
Linda Robbennolt's work wan referred to in one review as frivolous, but certainly no more so than any surrealist. The photographs, which combine painting with photography to create layers of illusion, are referential, to the extent that artists such as Magritte, on the one hand, and the Southern naive painters, on the other, come to mind. This exhibit, which was on display at HCP from November 18 through December 23, called upon many such disparate feelings and schools of thought. The most surprising element of this work is the unexpected success of filling in realities with partial truths. Some images are quite funny, others tender and innocent. One can almost imagine the images a few stages back in process, hand dispatching paint and line, then carefully cutting through the paper to insert the photographic blasphemy. Still others are quite disturbing in their pain ("Mastectomy"). It feels like a profoundly emotional response, filtered through a creative process, to the extent that our feelings can take a different form. And the manic, gleeful color, at times so inappropriate to the nature of the feeling imparted.
Simple dog/baby/woman imagery aligned with domestic settings in dysfunction, all rendered in petroglyph-like gesture, then completed with photographic bits and pieces, creates a complex symbol, ending up an editorial-social commentary. This is a remarkable feat. Notice we don't actually experience the breast being removed in "Mastectomy", or the hand actually touching the forbidden zone between the legs in "View From Above", but the experience of seeing a dangerous act this close elicits the same kind of uncomfortable response; we've undergone something very much like the real thing in spite of our probable resistance.
Her surprises are in seemingly endless supply. We see fingers everywhere, too tightly packed, floating unattached, and wonder what is the intended alarm, since so many seem to sound. One returns, again and again, to the question of inspiration. I am interested in the possibility that these are, to a certain extent, self-portraits ("Just a Slight Touch-Up". "Blowing Kisses", various body parts seen throughout). I am fascinated by the invasion of this imaginary privacy.