Champneys Taylor’s latest paintings appear to fall into two camps: Pluto and Easter. On the one hand, the Easter paintings showcase the robin-egg-blue speckle familiar from the dapple of the holiday’s best candies. The Pluto paintings, on the other hand—well, the surfaces might be called lunar, marked as they are by what look like craters and moors, but the comparison to the former planet is irresistible after the recent New Horizons flyby.
They’re two easy categories for a show that rewards—insists on, actually—the simple act of looking. It’s tempting to stop there with “Resident A.D.,” a selection of new work by the longtime D.C. painter at Civilian Art Projects. Taylor’s postmodern paintings don’t seek to draw the viewer in too deeply. It’s not that his paintings are superficial—they’re just so squarely focused on the surface.
“Day for Night” and “Wink” are two of his Pluto paintings. They’re dominated by a desolate landscape that looks like it might have been painted after a high-definition photo taken by a deep-space probe passing some lost minor planet. Of course, these surfaces aren’t depictions of anything at all, per se; they’re idiosyncratic mark-making systems. Both paintings are framed with a contrasting segment of warm lavender: iterations, variations on a theme.
The same goes for “Bufferin A.D. (Landbury)” and “Berm,” two Easter paintings that vary only a little in scale. Both draw on the same Ellsworth Kelly-style approach to composition: dominated by a tent-shaped polygon of pastel splash, framed by bold crayon chevrons of purple and yellow. Kelly looms large over Taylor’s compositions, but it’s not quite right to call them minimalist or even post-minimalist. Taylor is not focused on the process, but rather the outcome—again, it’s all about the surface.
It’s easy to take Taylor’s abstractions for granted, given the way he parlays these tight, action-oriented sequences but makes them look decorative. His paintings read as flattened, though not hard-edged or dense. “Simultaneous Cut (flag 1)” depicts a series of horizontal planes arranged in a sort of banner; in that painting and in “G.D. Beach Break (flag 2)”—Taylor’s works seem to come in pairs—the eggshell-dapple banner is weighted the same as the planes of fixed color.
Taylor’s Easter speckle is such a sincere and consistent imitation of a commercial pattern, it looks as though he’s applied it with a paint bucket tool in a digital application, not manually. The same goes for the vast expanse in “Aphid Twin,” which could be mistaken for the golden craggy surface of a rock orbiting Jupiter. It could easily be NASA wallpaper, cut to fit the composition.
That’s Taylor’s neat trick: Drawing from unlikely sources, he renders in almost photorealistic detail these panels, these surface elements, in such a way that the viewer forgets that’s what he’s doing. He’s simultaneously depicting these surfaces as he’s deploying them, bending these planes into loosely geometric arrangements—flattening them as he’s flaunting them.
Taylor is a painter’s painter. He builds tension by pushing the action in bursts while pulling toward staid academe. He wears his affection for abstract expressionism on his sleeve. For viewers who don’t admire the project of painting as an end unto itself, his paintings might come off as conservative. The “A.D.” in the show’s title could mean after death or anno Domini (in the year of our Lord), a hint at where Taylor stands on the death of painting, and where painting belongs in the hierarchy of artistic pursuits.
One painting in the show is too subtle: There’s not enough whomp to “Parenthetical,” a straightforward mid-century abstraction, to distinguish it from its forbears. Sometimes the little details in Taylor’s paintings—a dash of color on the border of a canvas, for example—the novel way he pairs painterly abstraction with commercial or borrowed abstraction. In paintings that depend so much on control, some of these marks look like strays.
Still, Taylor’s work resists the easy tendencies of painters working at the forefront of abstraction painting today. Taylor makes it look easy, but these are practiced paintings. No one would tag his work with “zombie formalism,” a slug for reductivist-but-market-friendly painters who appear to move like a herd from one painterly strategy to another—even after the death of painting. —Kriston Capps
4718 14th St. NW. Free. civilianartprojects.com