Reviews

Art and Architechture Journal : Jonathan Vickery

AAJ Press Book Reviews

Stephen Taylor, Oak: One Tree, Three Years, fifty Paintings (foreword by Alain de Botton), Princeton Architectural Press, 2011.

This is an artist-authored book, featuring a commentary and biographical information on the creation of an extraordinary series of paintings. The book takes as its subject a single oak tree in Essex, near the artist’s home. As both a tree, and as an iconic media of classic English art (the work of Constable) the oak is replete with meaning, memory, topographic pleasures as well as, to a lesser degree, dendrology. The oak is solitary and rugged, and non-Brits often wonder why the English maintain romantic associations with them, or given the relative undramatic nature of the English countryside, why the ‘countryside’ plays such a role in the cultural imagination that is our national identity. In this book Taylor opens his story with detail on his own lifelong relation to the oak, and his intellectual journey to this protracted project – where through wind, hail and snow, he sets down the life of this single oak in oil on board and canvas.

Outside specific commissions or profitable patronage, it is difficult to come by the kind of artistic commitment demonstrated by Taylor, with his almost eighteenth-century desire to investigate the mysteries of nature. Nature has all but been completely disenchanted, and it’s uncommon to find an art these days that still testifies to its power, telling of the ways it still conceals something essential to human consciousness. Taylor is no romantic, and his fifty paintings are not stylistically executed so as to evoke the generic romantic spectrum of responses, from wonder to awe to the beautiful and sublime. In fact, he even avoids the peculiarly British contribution to eighteenth century European art – the picturesque. The sensibility in Taylor’s painting is a contemporary one, exacting yet without cold scientific analysis, and stripped of the affectations and self-conscious post-stylistic mindset of the ‘post-contemporary’ (or post postmodern). The images are surprisingly unrepetitive – an endless disorder in successive viewings. The book’s consistent commentary provides a narrative framework for understanding this exercise as more than just painting, as if painting was ever just about painting.

February 2012

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