He doesn’t make a concerted effort to show his subjects in their finest moments; Taylor isn’t concerned about conforming to popular understandings about the way to properly depict a black person (empowered!). He paints his people the way they are, in all of their difficulties, simply asking that we see them. Gettin It Done (2016), a scene of a black man sitting on a stoop getting his hair braided, shows that his subjects don’t need to be dressed up, imperious, or set against a background of wealth to matter—they matter because they are here, and they are human. Marshall has used his canvases to largely confer glory and status onto the middle-class black figure in Western painting; Taylor has applied that logic of social realism to the poor, fallen, and forgotten. His studio is on Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles. There, he has “found his way into the paint, and the pain,” as Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah put it recently in the essay “Henry Taylor’s Wild Heart Can't be Broken,” included in the artist’s forthcoming—and first—major monograph.
“I pull my people off the damn street!” exclaimed Taylor. “I’m on Skid Row, and I’m looking at people all the time. Brothers walking around with no shirt, collecting bottles and cans.”
“I know when I paint a brother off the street, I’m painting more than just this brother,” the artist added. “He becomes more than just a sitter. I asked the last brother that came up to my studio, ‘What’s your name?’ He said, ‘No, no, don’t put my name! This is a period when I’m down. I’m on Skid Row!’ I told him it’s about respect, because I respect all these people. It’s a two-dimensional surface, but they are really three dimensional beings.”