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The artist Henry Taylor is a collector and an assembler, combining disparate elements and ideas on canvas, in sculpture, and now in textile-based works composed of reclaimed materials. In Nothing Change, Nothing Strange, Fabric Workshop and Museum (FWM) presents the result of Taylor’s recent residency, a collaborative exploration of context and meaning that began with a voyage through an ocean of trash.
Step in and be … baffled. You’re adrift in an abstract sea, a whirlpool of nameless creations rippling in all directions. You see squashed buckets, broken wallboard, frayed insulation, a nest of electrical conduit, zip-tied blocks of compressed plastic, rafts of wood pallets, and a pair of upended mannequin legs wearing swim fins.
Drift for a minute, and see. It’s a Taylor-made ocean: busy sea lanes traversed by a flotilla of inherited power built on exploitation and marked with bright flashes of plaid or, more properly, tartan.
History depends on the historian
To sculpt this marine world, Taylor and FWM partnered with Recycled Artist in Residency, a creative reuse program located in a Northeast Philadelphia recycling center. There, Taylor and exhibit organizers DJ Hellerman and Abby Lutz waded through waves of construction and demolition waste.
FWM studio artists built a loom for Taylor to weave massive cloths which unfurl on gallery walls. Painted lengthwise, one billows bright green over red, colors common to African nation flags. The other, gold over aquamarine, summons a seafaring sunrise.
At the front of the gallery, the custom loom stands ready to create a black-on-black tartan. The pattern is a signature motif for Taylor. Tartans, distinctive plaids denoting Scottish clans, have historically signaled identity, alliance, and native pride. In the middle of the 18th century, Highlanders were forbidden to wear tartans in any form—a British tactic to quell rebellious Scots. Insofar as the British Isles were involved in the importation and enslavement of Africans, the tartan also symbolizes the ownership of enslaved people by British subjects.
Taylor uses the distinctive design as wrapping, in kilts, and in a neon rendering. He breaks down the word, TAR TAN, and enshrines it on a black pennant-shaped flag, the kind that identify lead fleet vessels.
Charting troubled waters
A brigantine is anchored in the center of the gallery, loaded with marble fragments once destined for a polished black countertop. In its bow, three figures shrouded in black tarpaulins stand in warning, perhaps sirens or captives. There’s a globe bolted to the mainmast and a bridge of compressed plant containers, the kind currently crowding garden centers. In the prow, on four pieces of the marble, Taylor has written: Most Blacks Got Suga.
Taylor’s clearest statement of intention is contained in two works, one positioned so obscurely that it might never be seen.
The more visible piece consists of white and black unhinged doors. On the former, the word “WHITE” is printed and crossed out. Below it, “BLACK,” also crossed out. Then “ONLY,” also expunged. Finally, and intact, “ANY ONE” and an H, which can be interpreted as Henry … or Human.
To see the other key work, exit the back of the gallery to the elevator lobby, then turn back. A decorated map depicts Africa and Britain, and is festooned at top with golden curls and at bottom with wooly black hair. In the center is the phrase “Tarzan to Tartan.” Three little words that speak to centuries of subjugation, colonization, and exploitation of one race by another, justified by nothing more than superficialities. Tarzan to Tartan deserves to be where it can’t be missed.
Work on the edges
Working with FWM enabled Taylor to explore familiar topics through the vernacular of fabric. He has long probed subjects such as homelessness, oppression, and mental illness, subjects people prefer to avoid, not necessarily because they’re cruel, but because they feel ashamed and helpless in confronting them. Hellerman, FWM’s chief curator, said Taylor’s “incredible energy and willingness to open his process has resulted in an exhibition [that] digs deep into Henry’s thinking process and relationship with the politics embedded in material culture.”
Taylor’s sensitivity was sharpened during 10 years as a psychiatric technician at Camarillo State Mental Hospital, a period during which he studied at the California Institute of the Arts. He cared for patients with schizophrenia, administering medication and treatments, updating charts, and sometimes sketching. Taylor told Karen Rosenberg for Artspace magazine in 2016, “I learned not to dismiss anybody. It just made me a little more patient, a little more empathetic. It taught me to embrace a lot of things. A lot of people will avoid a person who doesn’t appear normal, but I’m not like that.”
Decades later, Taylor still works at the edges, observing the marginalized with empathy, anger, and sometimes ironic humor, redirecting viewers’ gaze where it may not want to go. Two 2017 paintings demonstrate this: THE TIMES THAY AIN’T A CHANGING, FAST ENOUGH! (2017), a depiction of police shooting victim Philando Castile, and Cicely and Miles Visit the Obamas (2017), an imaginary White House excursion by Black luminaries Cicely Tyson and Miles Davis. According to a 2022 Artspace interview, the works “are widely regarded as 21st-century American masterpieces.”
Based in his native Los Angeles, Taylor has invited people living on the streets into his studio for sittings, so his collaboration with FWM, which required mining and redeploying trashed material, is merely another way of focusing attention on how much we waste—natural resources, finished goods, time, people, and chances to do better.
What, When, Where
Henry Taylor: Nothing Change, Nothing Strange. Through October 22, 2023, at Fabric Workshop and Museum, 1214 Arch Street, Philadelphia. (215) 561-8888 or fabricworkshopandmuseum.org.
FWM’s main entrance is accessible for standard-sized wheelchairs and all floors are accessible by elevator and have accessible, single-user restrooms. Additional information is available on the FWM website, and questions can be addressed by calling 215-561-8888, ext. 233.
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