Susan Berry Taylor: Impressions and Expressions
Don't try to pigeonhole Susan Berry Taylor. If she started giving credence to artistic labels, using standard canvas sizes or acknowledging other externally imposed restrictions, she might miss something important. But she doesn't dabble, either. She simply makes choices for her own reasons rather than someone else's, and she does not shy away from taking those choices to their extreme artistic conclusions. Like her work, her personal and professional background is colorful and richly layered. "I have had formal training in just about everything," Taylor says. "Except painting," she adds. Guess what she does full time.
"Sometimes I feel like Jekyll and Hyde," she says. "I love to draw -- but I don't like it to look too tight." Taylor enjoyed printmaking for a while because "it's like you're drawing, but it keeps getting deeper and richer," but printmaking has its drawbacks as well, including the unpredictability of the colors. "I love drawing, I love texture, I love color.... I am trying to figure out how to incorporate everything." For example, Taylor explicitly delights in crossing the boundary between Impressionism and Expressionism.
Conventional wisdom suggests that these two schools of painting are mutually exclusive. One seeks to re-create the experience of a place by painting it en plein air, allowing a fleeting moment to impress its full, authentic presence upon all of the painter's senses. The other seeks to share the painter's vision by interpreting a scene or form -- or the medium itself -- through the painter's emotions. While useful for tracing artistic developments through history, in present-day practice the distinction between these two equally Romantic methods can begin to seem spurious. While the rigid categories persist, many painters have moved beyond them.
Taylor begins much of her work in the open air -- in her garden, among the apple blossoms in an orchard along Route 2, at the beach as a storm comes in. "I want to capture what gets me excited about being in a place," she said. "The leaves are flapping, the wind is blowing in your face, there's noise, the smell of salt air, the waves crashing. You can't make a wave standing still. You can't do it." In the garden, "bees are buzzing around your head, there are little spiders crawling.... That's why you won't see still life here: it can't capture movement." So far, that sounds like textbook Impressionism.
But once Taylor brings her impressionistic painting into the studio, its relationship to the original scene climbs into the back seat, and the inner expressionist takes the wheel. Taylor mentions Wolf Kahn as one of her inspirations, even though his overall style is "not what I end up painting." His work, she says, is "very loose, very much about layered texture -- visual, not paint texture." She quotes Kahn regarding his method: "I set up this chaos on the canvas and then I respond to it." Taylor's paintings routinely take on wholly different colors, shapes and meanings as she responds to the original impressions of the garden, orchard, or seascape. She shows me a work in progress that began as a vase of flowers. She put it aside, and the next time she looked at it, it "became a horizontal landscape." Later it was a vertical landscape, and she figured out which one -- a brook scene near her home, with two tree trunks rising from the bank in the foreground and an arched footbridge in the background, à la Monet.
As Taylor describes it, this process might sound maddeningly open-ended, something that could easily result in bowl after muddy bowl of entropy soup. But a mere glance at the paintings reveals that this responsive layering is the work of a meticulous perfectionist.
Taylor shows me a large unfinished painting, the most recent layer a luminous midnight blue. The piece began its life twice this size, as a beach scene, and had caught the eye of many a studio visitor. The scene included several wading figures, and had the unusual feature that the viewer looked from the perspective of someone standing in the water. Taylor enjoyed the praise, but "the figures weren't working for me. Everyone who looked at it loved it -- but it still annoyed me." Painful as it sounds to those of us who can't even apply a watercolor wash properly, Taylor cut the board in half and painted over the figures, all the time thinking, "I don't care if I make a mistake here. I don't like it compositionally." She has since made various modifications, none of which have looked right so far. "I'm not pre-planning this; I'm responding to it," she says. "I think at this point it's an underwater landscape." As she shows me some of the contours of a possible coral reef -- contours I hadn't noticed a moment ago, when it was just a bunch of blue blotches -- I get a precious insight into the process whereby she allows the next layer to emerge from the current one. Next time I see the painting, she will not have to show me the contours, because she will have brought them out with paint.
But, even though Taylor is fun to chat with, you don't have to hear her talk about her process in order to get a sense of it. If one of her paintings could function as her artist's statement, I would nominate "Diving Deeply." While the title suggests that the nude figure is being submerged -- like a new Ophelia, perhaps -- in the swirling blue and purple medium that surrounds her, one could as readily assume that the figure is emerging from it. Galatea coming to life under the hand of Pygmalion, or Aphrodite born of the sea foam. The perfectly indecisive poise of this painting invites the viewer to consider the moment of transition between fluid paint and definitive, figurative meaning. Why refuse to fall on one side or the other? Perhaps because Impressionism vs. Expressionism -- absorbing meaning from without vs. imposing it from within -- is not an authentic distinction when a real artist considers her role as translator between art and life. The real question is simpler, but harder to answer: how does paint turn into meaning? And, frankly, it is more fun to keep asking the question than it is to answer it.
So, if you'd like to meet a brilliant, engaged, personable artist whose work asks interesting questions and defies categorization, go visit Susan Berry Taylor's studio. Just remember to leave your expectations at the door.
Copyright 2007, Gallery Walk, Brattleboro, Vermont