Familiar landscapes, exotic approach | AspenTimes.com

Familiar landscapes, exotic approach

Stewart Oksenhorn
Carbondale artist Andy Taylor shows his landscape paintings at the Basalt Gallery. (Mark Fox/The Aspen Times)

Listening to an National Public Radio commentator discuss the work of a composer, Andy Young was struck by the description that the music was “somewhere between being predictable and surprising.” Taylor, a 57-year-old painter, thought the phrase could well be applied to his own art, and perhaps even his own life.

The paintings Taylor has made for nearly four decades are familiar. Though he occasionally switches gears to make a figurative work, the vast majority of Taylor’s paintings are landscapes, and the overwhelming majority of those depict scenes within a reasonably short drive from Taylor’s home (the same picturesque, early-20th century, downtown Carbondale house that Taylor has lived in for 31 years). Even his travel patterns, to find landscapes to paint, have become well-defined: Taylor drives almost exclusively west or south from Carbondale on his sketching excursions.

Within those boundaries, Taylor, who prefers desert and warmth to mountains and cold, has even whittled down his focus on the landscape. His paintings hardly ever feature mountains or expansive skies. Mt. Sopris, which dominates his at-home habitat, has been a subject for just three paintings (and two of those were commissions). Basalt Mountain, which Taylor can see by taking a few step outside his studio and which he adores for the way it catches the light, has similarly been largely excluded from his repertoire. Instead, the work focuses on rivers, rocks, trees, ground and, in a considerable number of recent paintings and to great effect, willow shrubs.

“You know what it is ” that’s predictable. Someone can look at that and know it’s cliffs, river, sticks, rocks, stones, leaves,” said Taylor of a recent piece of a river canyon scene. “It grounds the viewer, and it grounds me.”

What Taylor does with his landscapes is where the surprises come in. His colors are exaggerated and heightened, dreamlike and mood-setting. Especially interesting is his sense of perspective and layers: In numerous paintings, and more so in recent works, elements seem to jump toward the front of the canvas, detached from the background. Taylor says this last characteristic stems from his method of working: He will paint a canvas, leave it for days while it dries, and he works on another. He then comes back to the first one to add features and adjust colors. He is typically at work on 10 to 15 paintings at a time.

“You might be surprised by something ” how bright I get it,” he said. “You get to play with color. You know the cliff is not quite that orange. But it felt pretty orange to me.”

For 25 years or so, there has been a regular cycle to Taylor’s life, or at least the working part of it. Summers are devoted to what he calls his day job: From mid-April to mid-October, Taylor manages a sod farm on Missouri Heights. During those months, he sketches regularly, but paints rarely. Over the winter months, Taylor, who is sturdily built and looks more like a laborer than an artist, paints feverishly, turning out a handful of pieces a month.

The painter in Taylor doesn’t especially enjoy the stop-and-start nature of that rhythm. The sod farming is an interruption from painting; Taylor says if it was financially viable, he would paint year-round.

“If I don’t stay a little busy in the summertime, I get something like premature ejaculation in the winter,” he said. “It’s too much energy, too much anticipation. I tend to overpaint.”

Taylor favors the sort of momentum that comes with painting day after day, month after month. “One painting does help another. They feed off of one another all the time. You do something right in one painting, and you go, ‘Oh, that will work really well in another painting.

“You do build up, when you look at your palette every morning. And I miss that. You have to rebuild that when you take a break.”

From the look of his studio, it might be gathered that Taylor prefers order in all facets of his existence. His studio, located behind his house, exudes neatness, from the bare, white walls to the line of identical sketchbooks tagged with dates. His house, too, is a model of coherence; the furniture matches, or complements, the colors in Taylor’s paintings hanging on the walls.

Probably the most unanticipated thing about Taylor’s painting is that he paints at all. He was raised in the steel town of Coatesville, Pa., with little artistic ambition, other than the drawings he tried his hand at now and then.

Attending Colorado College, in Colorado Springs, Taylor’s emphasis was on avoiding the Vietnam War. Only for lack of anything better did he opt to major in botany ” a field of study which, he says, “fell apart fairly quickly.” He switched to history, a major in which he managed to fulfill his requirements in the middle of his junior year.

That left Taylor with plenty of time, which he decided to fill with painting. He had painted, on his own and without much direction, for a while, and had the sense he might be good at it.

“So I coerced the chairman of the art department to see if I could paint on my own and get credit for it,” he said. “He said no. Then I showed him what I was doing, and he said yes. For the next year and a half, he let me sign up for his courses and free paint. Which was wonderful. I had to change my major to art by the time I graduated.”

Thus began what Taylor calls his addiction.

“And the addiction gets worse,” he said, as time goes on.

As with all obsessive pursuits, painting is a mix of pleasure and aggravation. “What I found, for me, is sometimes you have to really work at it,” said Taylor, who says the only thing he has that approaches a hobby is cross-country skiing. “There’s a point, or several points, when you’re doing a painting, that are really work. They’re not inspiration, or necessarily fun. The beginning of a painting is wonderful; the end is wonderful ” and in between is sometimes a struggle. If you want to push it along, you have to work at it.”

Taylor seems to have consistently pushed his art. He showed me a landscape from the early ’80s; it paled in comparison to his current work. His approach to color has become far more complex.

“I like to have a lot going on, on the surface,” said Taylor, who has been represented in the past by a series of Denver galleries, but now shows exclusively at the Basalt Gallery. “This is a visual thing, and I like people to be able to look and find different things going on.” He points out a patch of rock in a recent painting that contains a variety of shades. “There’s a lot going on in that one color group, whereas, 25 years ago, I might have painted that purple.”

Taylor also showed me a humorous, cowboy-oriented series of figurative works he did in 1983, and while he notes that much of the series sold, it wasn’t a direction he wanted to follow. “They didn’t have a life. They were sort of thin, for me,” he said. When he raises the possibility that he has arrived as a “mature” artist, the word brings a smile to his face.

“I was searching around for different things. I probably searched for 15 years,” said Taylor, of the time before he became almost strictly a landscape artist. “But landscapes are one thing where I can sort of wake up every day and be happy. I can find inspiration in them all the time. It can keep me energized all the time. Some of the other stuff doesn’t. It exhausts you, or the humor gets old. You can’t do it every day.”

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com

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