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Art review: 'Al Taylor: Wire Instruments and Pet Stains' at the Santa Monica Museum of Art

April 5, 2011 |  4:31 pm

The Peabody Group #32Making mountains of molehills has become something of a national pastime. We all do it, every time we tell exaggerated stories about otherwise pedestrian exploits.

 Many artists excel at these shenanigans, making works that pretend to be more than they are. Their hyped-up hybrids are so adept at multi-tasking that they seem to be striving to be all things to all people.

At the Santa Monica Museum of Art, a refreshingly levelheaded exhibition sticks a pin into the pompous nonsense that defines a big part of life in the digital phase of the Information Age. “Al Taylor: Wire Instruments and Pet Stains” is a terrifically unpretentious exploration of the honest pleasures and modest delights that can be found in the mundane materials and tried-and-true gestures of drawing.

Organized by Director Elsa Longhauser and curator Lisa Melandri, the smartly focused show features 46 pieces that Taylor (1948-1999) made from 1989 to 1992. Nearly three-fourths are small, framed works on paper. Eleven others, which rest on the floor or hang on the wall, combine various lengths of unpainted wood with variously shaped sheets of Plexiglas and strands of loosely strung wire. Nearly all are adorned with basic marks made with graphite, ink and grease pencil, as well as gouache, watercolor, latex, enamel, wax crayon, typewriter correction fluid, Xerographic toner, solvent, coffee and tea.

No matter the materials, all of Taylor’s pieces are all about drawing.

Drawing, with an emphatically small ‘d,’ is Taylor’s specialty — not puffed-up Drawing-as-Sculpture, Drawing-as-Painting or Drawing-as-Installation; just plain, flat-footed drawing, which, in his hands, turns out to be anything but plain or flat-footed.

One of the best things about Taylor’s subtly inventive works is that there is nothing traditional, back-to-basics or stick-in-the-mud about them.

Various pieces serve various purposes. Some, like “Decoy” and “Pet Stain Removal Device (Don’t Invent Things)” resemble studies. In pencil and ink on pages torn from spiral notebooks, they appear to be quickly sketched diagrams for 3-D pieces Taylor was working out in his head.

Taylor_UntitledOthers are more carefully rendered pictures. “No title” presents a plain room, its white wall and wood floor bare except for a black blob and a white puddle. Several drawings depict Taylor’s 3-D pieces, in the same way that portraits portray sitters and still lifes describe arrangements of fruit, flowers and other studio setups. Some of these images, like “Doupple Ganger” and “Pet Stain Removal Device,” zoom in for close-ups. Others frame the imagery in narrow rectangles, suggesting an interior viewed through a keyhole (“Pet Stain Removal Device #4”) or a panoramic landscape through a window (“Haustier Fidibus).”

Still other drawings recall the illustrations that accompany items that require home assembly. “Indexing a Pet Stain” resembles an image of a spinning Rolodex or a malfunctioning catapult. Motion is also evoked by “Jake-Ironfoot-Oxford-Sussex,” which bends space as it maps incompatible surfaces onto one another.

When Taylor turns to larger sheets of paper, his works turn away from depiction and pictorial illusionism. The physical process of applying various liquids to various surfaces takes over. The results, like the approximately 4-foot-square “John, Paul, George, and Ringo,” “Untitled (Ave. Junot)” and “Avenue Junot (2),” are among the show’s most beautiful works, their unfussy puddles and meandering rivulets creating quirky narratives that presume nothing and deliver lots.

The same goes for the three pieces from “The Peabody Group.” Their complex networks of drips and spills are labeled with diaristic names and phrases, as if identified by an explorer to hitherto unvisited territories.

Taylor’s 3-D pieces turn down the volume by turning away from the physical fact that sculptures are volumes that occupy space. These wonderfully understated works stick to surfaces, occupying overlapping planes of Plexiglas that do everything but fall flat when they come to life in the mind’s eye.

Molehills never looked better.

-- David Pagel

“Al Taylor: Wire Instruments and Pet Stains,” Santa Monica Museum of Art, 2525 Michigan Ave., Bergamot Station, (310) 586-6488,, through April 16. Closed Sundays and Mondays. Admission: Free.

Images, from top: Al Taylor, "The Peabody Group #32;" Al Taylor, "Untitled." Credit: Santa Monica Museum of Art