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Even More Potent When Reheated, Reused, and Revived: the Art of Bernie Taupin

September 1, 2016 - Arty Nelson | [Image: Rob Hofmann]

Starting in the 90’s, Bernie Taupin, already responsible for generating a massive and an extremely potent body of song lyrics over four or five decades, began pouring his creative energies into amassing a body of visual work. Drawing upon a voracious appetite for looking at art and studying art history, Taupin began working, predominately painted abstraction, the earlier works owing heavily to the post-WWII American canon with an emphasis on Ab Ex peppered with bits of Color Field and Pop (from that, a group of canvases resembling “dripped grids” stand out as particularly compelling and original). Elements of words, often drawn from popular culture, media blitz and current events would sometimes appear, effectively punctuating the abstractions. Another quite resonant aspect of Taupin’s work is the connection to “The American” and/or “Americana.” As the artist himself has commented, I’ve been referred to as a British-born American Artist and that’s fine by me.

With “8” Bernie Taupin has put together a tightly-curated presentation emphasizing on works drawn mostly from the assemblage process. Most of the pieces have been created in the last several years. The Spartan, almost bare-bones exhibit consisting of seven wall works and a single free-standing sculpture is a muscular next-step in Taupin’s growing visual resume. Perusing the line-up, one certainly gets a sense that Taupin has thoroughly digested his inspirations and is now very much off on his own rant, adding to the storied assemblage dialogue.

Anchoring the show is the three-dimension “American Burka” – To date, one of only two sculptural works the artist has executed. The central element of the piece is a female mannequin wrapped top to bottom in coarse cloth and barbed wire. Interestingly enough, though the piece is being exhibited for the first time, it was completed over a decade ago. Given the growing and, arguably, even more precarious relationship between the western world and the Muslim faith, the timing of the debut feels even more prophetic and finely aged.

Heading over to the wall with “From Batman to Minneapolis” Taupin has rendered an assemblage work worthy of comparison to the most memorable Rauschenberg. A grid of everyday-life Polaroids inhabit a window in the top left of the composition, its voyeuristic banality offset by a large swath of vintage comics running along the right side of the panel. The center of piece is an elegant drizzling of string, a few more snapshots and some chicken wire, all overtop a hauntingly patina’d undercurrent of US flags. Standing before the piece one is overcome with a sense akin to a Momento Mori, an accretion of some forgotten family’s sentimental history composed by a surviving child. Compositionally the piece succeeds at both ends of the spectrum, both random and somewhat random while, also, eerily poignant and sparsely conceived.

Another assemblage work feels carved out of a very different set of compositional principles, “I Do Not Play No Rock ‘N Roll” owes its title to an old Mississippi Delta Bluesman named Fred McDowell though, for obvious reasons, feels doubly potent coming from the mind and hands of Taupin. A swirling amalgam of obliterated guitar parts, one’s eye continually zooming in to parse the wreckage then pulling back just as urgently to take in the all-over-ness and formal punch.

With “She Has To Kill Him She Loves Him”, the artist has removed or “scorched” large swathes of then canvas then added panels of both comics and “sexy” editorial photos of women. The layering of the piece makes it seem almost like we’re seeing the blood and guts behind an idea, like we’re looking under the hood, or behind the scenes, examining how popular culture basely traffics in and commodifies the female form. Far from flattering, the piece exudes a tawdry “dirty little secret” quality, like our collective face is being held up and forced to examine an autopsy mid-procedure.

With “8-Track Stack” a churning stew of eight track tapes, smeared end to end across the plane of the work, indicates just a hint of scatter art. The titles of the tapes covering the dominant genres of the 70’s, scanning the piece is like sifting through the half-off bin of not only a now-dead era but, also, a now-dead means of capturing and distributing music. One of the more potent aspects of Taupin’s practice is the way in which he “repurposes” materials, often leaving shards of visual evidence of the component’s “past life.” In might be argued that Taupin’s bringing a material back to life though, this time, on a newly engineered, less direct mission. With “8-Track Stack” given the artist’s long standing relationship not only to medium but, also, to an era when his lyrics were blaring night and day out of nearly every car stereo, the act of reviving the 8-Track tape cartridge feels particularly poignant, a ghost of autobiography.  

In “Volumes: Comix 4” we’re treated to an excess of pop culture, a gorging really, turned into an evenly-milled mulch, then caked atop of canvas. Unlike other works in the show, the origins of the material are tougher to glean at a glance -- without the tip-off from the title I’m not sure I would’ve known. With “Volumes”, Taupin’s work takes on a more minimalist feel, the elegance of the finish enabling it to hold its own in, say, Group Zero -- it’s lush, sculpted mulch field, echoing one of Gunther Uecker’s dense and swirling nail fields. Leaning closer to take in the source fodder of the mulch -- and unlike other works in the show -- it feels like the DNA of the material’s past life has been thoroughly digested, then regurgitated back up onto the surface. Once again, the clever rebirth, a second life, prompting one to speculate, if by embarking on his next chapter creating visual art, Taupin didn’t cultivate a compulsion for metamorphosis wherein he endlessly found new and compelling uses for old and/or potentially discarded things.  

With “Volumes: Crate 5 (Made In America)” – By laying a cross-hatching of wooden sticks overtop a mulched media field, the resulting work is imbued with a buoyant dynamism. This time, however, by dropping the mulch field from the foreground, the texture is reinterpreted as a visual subtext, providing a setting for the floating wooden diagonals, even adding a sense of lightness. Suddenly, a technique that once offered a chunky density, now in “Crate 5” creates a porous-feeling base, encouraging one to focus more on the delicate grating floating on top. The final touch being the act of binding the two planes together with twine, creating an “against one’s will” aspect to the work’s resolution.    

With “Intermission” we’re back faced with another scorched canvas. The torn-open quality of “Intermission” so compelling that that piece feels more like a mounted three dimensional sculpture than a more traditional wall piece. With “Intermission” the emphasis, however, is more on the exposed aspects of the frame -- not what the removed panels have been replaced with -- many of which are adorned with string and bits of patterned fabric. With “Intermission” -- and unlike the rest of the works in the show – it’s the negative space that screams the loudest, on what’s been removed, the hollowed-out areas seem to indicate a human torso -- whether that’s the artist’s intention, or, a bit of magical Rorschach thinking, the piece offers a strange kind of compositional relief, especially when viewed alongside the lion’s share of “8” which brims and bubbles with both sensory overload and compositional bombast in a most rewarding way.  

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