Foreclosed is the kind of show that makes it seem advantageous for artists to also be craftsmen. In contrast to the parallel movements of “post-skill art” on one hand and “sloppy craft” on the other, Alison Elizabeth Taylor‘s marquetry pieces at James Cohan Gallery are constructed with incredible skill. And—when materials connect meaningfully with imagery—they are outstanding examples of art that satisfyingly integrates workmanship and concept.
The unusual medium draws you in. A first glance might suggest that Taylor’s work is painted, but a closer look reveals that the compositions are actually blade-thin fragments of wood inlaid in panels. The pieces in the show are all crafted with pleasurable attention to detail: up-close viewing shows the joins to fit together perfectly without gaps, lumps, or smudges of glue. Taylor is self-taught, so her obvious facility with the fragile veneer is particularly impressive.
In Foreclosed, Taylor’s overarching concept was to respond to “the human impact of the short-sighted policies and greed that triggered millions of foreclosures.” The works in the exhibition can be divided into two categories: portraits of people, and portraits of destruction. Somewhat perversely, the work shines when it reveals the kicked walls, torn out electricals, or water-damaged ceilings of the vacant houses. These, such as the photorealistic Wires Ripped (2009-10), marry the materials and vision—wood veneer creating an image of ravaged drywall and wood studs—that moves the work beyond skill and into the realm of distinction. Taylor’s adept use of the medium is a reversal of the careless damage, creating a tense, almost anxious connection between the image and its flawless ground. Rendered in sumptuous detail, the ravaged drywall and cracked wood studs are a perfect stand-in for the economic and emotional destruction of domestic bliss laid to waste.
Another example, the large Squatter Doorway (2009) is an interior view of a ragged hole in the exterior wall of a house, where wooden slats and scraps of decorative molding are nailed to make a sloppy latticework barricade against intruders. Beyond the slats are glimpses of the normally-invisible framing of the wall, and still further beyond, a peek into the yard and wooden siding of the house. What fascinates here, aside from the beauty and precision of the execution, is the conceptual dimensionality: wood is the structural material used to depict the material structure. There is a lucid circularity to it, a completeness that holds the subject matter to the physicality of the work. Another large piece, the installation Tap Left On (2009-10), portrays a water-damaged ceiling to the same brilliant effect.
The portraits, unfortunately, don’t have the same conceptual texture. The Pyrographist (2009) is obviously executed with equal skill. A smiling bespectacled woman stands proudly in front of her creations, a series of wood-burned nature scenes on the paneled wall behind her. But without the ideological marriage of the subject to the medium, it falls flat.
Interestingly, reviews of her work to date have not raised the issue of craft qua craft. Marquetry is a practice typically limited to popular subjects or patterning on functional objects like tables. Taylor’s work displays an unmistakable mastery of woodworking, unusual in the contemporary arts but vital to traditional craft. Instead of being a detractor, this association with folksiness seems to bolster the overall theme of the exhibition. By using an atypical yet unthreatening medium, Taylor reveals an accessible but still intriguing vision of loss and anger.