LOS ANGELES -- The title stenciled on the frosted glass door panel triggered schoolkid panic: PRINCIPAL. From across the threshold, the word on the back of the same door conjured adult doom: PROBATION.
To see the art in two adjoining rooms of Henry Taylor's recent solo show in Los Angeles, patrons had to pass through this doorway in both directions and put themselves -- at least symbolically -- in one or two circumstances they may never have encountered personally.
Transporting viewers into new perspectives like this is second nature to Mr. Taylor, a Los Angeles-based artist whose work will appear in the 2013 Carnegie International next month. Although his art provokes, Mr. Taylor -- who once invited a crack addict off the street to pose in his studio -- recoils when it is pigeonholed as "outsider art."
Mr. Taylor met with a reporter at his breezy Chinatown studio on a steamy hot day last month to talk about his work, his life and his thoughts about the upcoming exhibition. He works inside a 1950s-era building that is home to the Kow Kong Benevolent Association, a historic lodge that supports new immigrants.
The studio itself occupies a cavernous ground-floor meeting room featuring Mr. Taylor's trusty Vespa parked in the center, a crate of LPs at the ready, secondhand furniture for lounging, and large canvases hanging on walls or leaning against them in bunches.
Mr. Taylor warmly welcomed his guests, lit a cigarette, popped open a beer bottle and plopped down in a worn armchair to chat.
Scope of his work
The 55-year-old is known for his swiftly executed portraits and found-object compositions. His human subjects range from relatives to world famous icons.
One oil composition portrays his older brother, Johnie Ray, who was "fun to be around" and taught him "a hell of a lot." Johnie Ray suffered burns as a child, ran track in school and had a career in mental health.
Another painting, which will appear in the Carnegie exhibit, shows Alice Coachman, a mostly forgotten track star from southern Georgia, who, in 1948, became the first African-American woman to win a gold medal at the Olympics. He also painted the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie, and two other works to appear at the Carnegie: Black Panther leaders Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver. Another featured painting is "Homage to a Brother," Mr. Taylor's tribute to Sean Bell, a New York man who was slain in 2006 by police gunfire the night before his wedding.
When asked about his painting of a Caucasian man in handcuffs being led down a red carpet by two officers out of a Southern plantation estate, Mr. Taylor said it was inspired by the Bob Dylan song "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" about a young Maryland tobacco farmer who served six months in county jail after fatally assaulting a 51-year-old African-American mother with a toy cane.
Another 24-foot-wide canvas features a dreadlocked man in a prison yard; the wall behind him reads "NO WARNING SHOTS REQUIRED." This one, he said, was inspired by Stanley Tookie Williams, a former Crips gang leader turned author and peace broker who died by lethal injection in 2005 at San Quentin after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger rejected a bid for clemency.
A bit more abstract, Mr. Taylor's three-dimensional assemblage pieces sometimes take up a good portion of a gallery space. He repaints discarded objects, like cigarette packs and cereal boxes, providing labels of his own.
He crafts horses out of discarded wood planks. He paints bleach bottles black, flips them upside down and displays them atop long sticks, so they resemble African tribal masks. He situates these next to upturned mops, and an old suitcase plastered with a head-and-shoulders collage cutout of the slain rapper Tupac Shakur. Or he'll lay a pair of leather boxing gloves atop a beat-up side table.
The door to the principal's office, at Blum and Poe's April exhibit in Los Angeles, led into a room with paintings Mr. Taylor made from WPA photographs of African-American farm workers on the walls. The floor of the WPA gallery was coated with rows of plowed soil. Above the makeshift field hung a chandelier and below it an elegant dining table set for eight. The association to slavery and African-Americans working in the fields and in white homes was intentional. The chairs around the table have multiple meanings.
A heartfelt connection
The youngest of eight children, Mr. Taylor was raised in Oxnard, Calif., a working-class coastal town near two naval bases, which drew his family to the region for work. "I'm Henry the Eighth," he said, grinning. Two of his brothers fought in the Vietnam War, an experience that reverberates through Mr. Taylor's work.
His mother was a domestic worker; his father, who left the family when Mr. Taylor was about 11, was a commercial painter for the government.
The synchronicity of being father and son "painters" is not lost on him. Mr. Taylor said everyone tells him he looks just like his father, who died in 1995. Mr. Taylor recalled visiting his father's apartment in Oakland, Calif., shortly after he passed away and seeing his dad's collection of "huge" paintbrushes. He often thinks of that moment and says to himself, "How come I didn't save the brushes?"
Mr. Taylor's compassion for and heartfelt connection to people from all walks of life is like a steady drumbeat through his life. Mr. Taylor worked for 10 years as an aide on a psychiatric unit at Camarillo State Mental Hospital, the place where -- many years before Mr. Taylor's tenure -- Charlie Parker was committed and was inspired to compose "Relaxin' at Camarillo." Mr. Taylor said he will never forget working the night shift as a young man and discovering the body of a patient who had killed herself by hanging.
Mr. Taylor was living downtown eight years ago, preparing for his first or second show, when he read in the newspaper that a mental health facility in Long Beach was "dumping" newly released patients on the streets of Los Angeles. Around that time, Mr. Taylor ran into a "dual diagnosis" patient he knew from the Camarillo facility and took the man home and gave him a place to sleep for the night. The man didn't want help finding shelter. He smoked a bunch of cigarettes, Mr. Taylor said, and "I gave him bag of potato chips and some money" before he left the following day.
Would he do that again now that he is an internationally acclaimed artist who has shown work at MoMA PS1 in New York, one of the oldest and largest nonprofit contemporary art institutions in the United States?
"If I saw that dude again, I'd do the same thing," he said.
And later in the conversation, he said, "I am the common man. We can't all be in the Hamptons with funky, rich-ass people. ... I still eat beans from a can. I don't just shop at Dean & DeLuca. I still eat some Spam so I can afford to buy a canvas."
He described his artistic process as spontaneous, free and open-ended. He never makes an appointment for a portrait, although he did once invite an elderly Latina woman -- whom he presumed to be a crack addict -- to his studio so he could paint her.
"Sometimes you just paint to get yourself going. You don't always know what they're [the paintings] going to look like or where they're going to go. Sometimes you get a base hit, and sometimes you get a home run.
"I don't feel like I'm making a masterpiece. I feel like I'm just painting. Sometimes you just work, you know? Sometimes I might want to paint my mom, think about people in my life."
Mr. Taylor has a daughter, 23, in New York, who just graduated from The New School with a degree in environmental science, and his son, 22, is a drummer and lives in Thousand Oaks, outside Los Angeles. Mr. Taylor lives on his own in downtown Los Angeles.
As for the significance of being invited to the Carnegie International, Mr. Taylor said:
"You gotta crawl before you walk. I don't take anything for granted. It's nice to be invited. It means something. There are times when I wish my mom was here to share. I seen her work hard all my life."
The Carnegie International, featuring 35 artists from 19 countries, will run Oct. 5 through March 16, 2014, at the Carnegie Museum of Art.
Gabrielle Banks, a former Post-Gazette reporter, is a Los Angeles-based freelancer (firstname.lastname@example.org). First Published September 18, 2013 4:00 AM