Ornate, patterned and psychedelically coloured, renowned New York painter Philip Taaffe’s works have always charged against the grain of modernist aesthetics. Since making a splash in the mid-1980s with appropriations of paintings by the likes of Barnett Newman, Taaffe’s works have enjoyed an altered reception. In light of the artist’s unwavering regard for his predecessors and contemporaries, a practice that was once understood as critical of painting’s agency can now be recognised as presenting a direct engagement with the medium’s history, craft and significance.
Producing a likeness to textile designs, Taaffe’s latest paintings collage the starry patterns of Islamic architecture with the tie-dye prints of Javanese batiks, lithe botanical sketches with the aberrant drips of action painting, and Byzantine busts with Japanese Noh masks. Marrying silkscreen printing with gestural mark making, these highly crafted works are as rich in style, skill and composition, as they are in haywire ethnographical and historical inferences.
Regardless of the striking visual appeal of these bright works, most impressive is how Taaffe’s paintings, the result of decades of laboured evolution, seem so insistently contemporary. Perhaps it is his ceaseless muddling of our conceptions of thinking and making – an interrogation of the perceived dichotomy of intellect and practice – that seems so relevant to concurrent trends. Avoiding a bout of painterly naval-gazing, Taaffe’s works are not only concerned with the history of abstract painting, but they talk more generally of craft, fabrication and storytelling. In doing this, the artist crosses into the ancient realms of decorative arts, theatre, architecture and science.
With motifs sequestered from Islamic, Indonesian and Pacific cultures, there remains a knot of unease on these canvases. The distinct otherness of this American artist’s imagery weaves a further point for consideration – one that disturbs the surfaces of these exquisite paintings, forcing generative considerations of both viewpoint and interpretation.