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About Johnny Taylor
Taylor currently creates from his studio in the south Bronx, New York, where the action, intensity and energy of this historic epicenter propels his work, a return to his abstract roots. Embracing change as the only constant, Taylor has carved out a nomadic creative path rather than set up a solid home base. The unpredictable and distinct energies of his different working environments have been absorbed into his process – from the grit of Vancouver’s downtown eastside, the neon glow of the streets of Kanda, to the spell of nature in a cabin studio above the Fraser Canyon.
In 2015 Taylor was awarded a residency at the acclaimed 3331 Chiyoda Arts Centre, in Tokyo Japan. In addition to creating a body of work shown alongside fellow international artists, he covered over six hundred kilometres of the metro area on foot in his two month stay, the beginning of an immersion in Japanese aesthetics that continue to inform his stylistic sensibilities. Taylor has returned to Japan regularly for ongoing inspiration.
Taylor was a merit scholarship candidate at the school of the Art Institute of Chicago. He has been featured in Ion Magazine, The Vancouver Sun, The Vancouver Observer, Scout Magazine and Artweek LA. He is represented by McQueen Agency, and has recently collaborated with Burrit Bros. Fine Flooring on a series of custom designed rugs for their notable Artist series. His works can be found in private and public collections throughout North America, Europe and Japan.
Meet Johnny Taylor by Carmen Hrynchuk
Reinvent yourself, but know where you’re coming from. It’s a big ask and one that artist Johnny Taylor knows intimately. Having recently moved to New York from Vancouver, he’s been rediscovering the simplicity of painting from a place of discovery. The result? Kinetic Zen, a dynamic new series that explores finding harmony and flow on the move. As you’ll soon discover, it was a process both intentional and instinctual, revealing gratitude for what was, excitement for what is, and hope for what’s to come. Meet Johnny Taylor…
When you were first starting out, what was it about the arts that made you feel like it could be your community?
I’ve been surrounded by art and artists my whole life, so it feels second nature to me. Both of my grandparents on my mother’s side were renowned painters from Hungary, and some of that creative blood passed straight into me for sure. As well, my dad was a gallery curator with a wealth of knowledge of art history and had tons of artist friends around all the time while I was growing up. The enviable collection of works he’d inherited throughout his life were also always in my sightline.
You’ve described yourself as “a mark-maker at heart.” What is it about that gestural language that suits you and the themes you’re drawn to?
I like that with mark-making there’s an agreement that you relinquish a certain amount of control. On the one hand, you are expressing yourself very directly and automatically. For me that means smashes and hacks from bladed tools, paint straight from the tube, smearing and dragging with oil sticks and squeegees, etc. On the other hand, the materials always have their own say when you’re mark-making and most often won’t do exactly what you’d hoped. That means having to act decisively, then working with the anomalies and accidents along the way. The marks sort of become their own thing you can stop at and take in, while also representing something in the bigger picture—it points the viewer toward the painting being an object in and of itself, as opposed to creating a viewing window or illustrating a subject. I love the moments where you see a struggle or challenge or breakthrough because there’s some unfiltered physical evidence that’s been captured.
What would you say were the 3 biggest influences that living in New York had on this body of work?
I definitely shifted my mindset immediately in New York. I was very aware right away that I was completely anonymous and able to disappear into the fabric of the city. It was a strange feeling knowing I now lived there but wasn’t feeling a real connection to the place yet. I felt like a method actor for a while, with this detached voyeuristic outlook, trying to get to a place within where I could leave my old artistic identity behind. I kept asking myself: What would happen if I didn’t know what a “Johnny Taylor” was supposed to look like? What if I could remove the artist from the art? I wanted to explore the relevancy of that. I tried to fool myself away from my old gestures and mechanics, the ways of painting I would default to in the past.
What has your move to New York (and subsequent “reset”) taught you about yourself?
I’ve been called an empath of environments (rather than of people) and would completely agree with this. Where I am is always in the work. A creative period like this was meant to be about absorbing the input and expressing from the energy coming at me. But I can also feel that isn’t sustainable in a place with so much intensity. I can’t leave the channels this wide open for too long. Fortunately, there’s enough NYC content in me to sift through for a while. The next creative period will probably embrace some reflection on this time.
What is the creative process like for you? Where do you usually begin, and was that true of this series?
With Kinetic Zen, I tried to challenge myself to break my habits and sort of “go-to” movements and structural cues of past works. As simple as it may sound, I started from the idea of colour relationships as the subject itself with this series (something I’ve never done), as opposed to starting with form and delineating the space as I usually do.
I can begin a painting from wanting to express an idea, and an idea could be a line from a song maybe, or an unexpected phrase I hear that forms a title or a beginning of a vision. Sometimes I spring from that place. Other times it can be as simple as the excitement of the arrival of some new surface material, and then I’ll just start with a gesture, usually a big movement, making some kind of purposeful moment. It won’t be that complicated either. Maybe I’ll mix a specific colour (something new or unusual), load it on a big squeegee, and put a definitive movement down, just to break the ice and get rid of the preciousness—to take away the pristine feeling of the surface. Then I feel like, “Now I can just go for it.” Then, subsequently, I can make my next action, my next moment, my next colour, and that’s really what this series was about—reacting to these moments and having this awareness to question if I was about to react in a predictable way.
There was an interesting thing that happened with almost every one of these pieces. I would get about halfway through then think to myself that it was way too controlled-looking and would literally scrape half the painting off. What I’d be left with was a blurry, misty imprint that I rebuilt over top of. It made a dreamy kind of depth behind it all.
The acrylic works were started with layers of spray on the backside that seem embedded in the material somehow. I tried to push the depth in these without relying on perspective. It’s all just layers of colour in various shapes. I’ve always tried to convey a sense of floating, hovering, shifting, suspension. Not a solid place, not a real place, more a mind’s eye vision.
Tell us about your connection to Bradley Moss, the Roxy’s Artistic & Executive Director.
Bradley was like a big-brother figure to me when I was in high school. He was in his mid-twenties and lived in this little rented suite just behind our apartment. I remember always thinking that Brad was awesome—he was such a dude, and drove a motorcycle, and loved sports like me, had a big laugh. But he was also a very “tapped-in” guy—into theatre (obviously), music, writing, and the arts. I remember his whole circle of friends, these vibrant, caring, men and woman. They were all so deeply connected and passionate. I was incredibly lucky to have that example at that time in my life.
When you’re taking a break from a project, what will we likely find you doing?
I am a soccer nut, so I love taking an afternoon to kick a ball around and do practice drills in the park (I love fitness training in general). I definitely take time exploring New York with my wonderful partner in crime, Amy, taking in art shows and finding new neighbourhoods. We’re always on the hunt for a great coffee (I am that coffee-geek guy for sure) or a great slice of NY pizza (I have a whole list of places I’ve rated). When I’m fully chilling, you’ll find me on the couch with my cat, reading some Murakami 🙂
Tell us about a lesson you’ve had to learn more than once.
I need to slow down.
What do you hope people take away from your work, and this series in particular?
I seem to always create some kind of space or place in the work unconsciously, so I’m taking from environments both experienced and studied. I love the things I see showing up that surprise me in this new work—glimpses of the sunsets illuminating skyscrapers along the river as I ride my bike home, for instance. I see the influence of Japanese woodblock prints, which I constantly return to for reference. There’s a very thematic way landscape is conveyed in these—the cloud forms, water, and mountains. It’s interesting to me to see how with this series I approached my abstraction and arranged my elements, chopped up, spliced and layered, like an electronic music producer taking bits of samples and mixing them into a track. I feel those kind of rhythms in these works, something edgy and electric but with a lofty, open feeling and softened edges. I see different worlds colliding and fusing—something ancient like woodblock prints and modern techno finding visual harmony. I try to reformat these inspirations, even to myself, so they can be something mysterious and maybe just out of reach of totally explaining.
I hope there is something dynamic and elusive in the suggested spaces I create so that it becomes something the viewer can decide for themselves what they think it is.
What makes you hopeful these days?
After this struggle through the pandemic for the past few years, I’d like to think that we could come to a new, deeper respect and appreciation of the basic joys of being able to connect and communicate again in real life and real time. Meeting each other with openness and softness and curiosity.
Even in my work (and I rarely get political), I found myself reacting with frustration to this modern climate of normalizing misinformation, and a lot of it seems wrapped in a sense of isolation compounded by the digital pathways we’re treading. Posts, Zooms, Tweets, Amazon orders—whatever the endless online loops. I think it might take some time and effort, but getting our feet back on the ground into our neighbourhoods, communities, and physical spaces that we’ve built as places to share with others is a step in the right direction. Even something like an art opening that we can all actually show up for again is something I certainly don’t take for granted and am very thankful for.
Johnny Taylor’s new series, Kinetic Zen, will be showing at the Miller Art Gallery at the Roxy, September 1–27, 2022.