The Elton John Songwriter’s Lesser-Known Greatest Hits: Paintings

Emily Nathan
Aug 28, 2014 9:45PM

Bernie Taupin is perhaps best known as the wordsmith behind Elton John’s biggest hits. Since their partnership began in 1967—the result of Taupin’s successful answer to an ad in an English music magazine—they have collaborated on dozens of songs and have sold over 250 million records. But beyond his musical ventures, the Lincolnshire, England-born Taupin is a man of many talents: in 1990, the former farmhouse worker and amateur poet picked up a paintbrush, and he has not set it down since. His retrospective exhibition, titled “Tes-ta-ment” and on view at KM Fine Arts through September 15th, unites a vast range of mixed-media paintings he created over the last 20 years, all of which are marked by a gestural energy reminiscent of Abstract Expressionism, and a bold use of color and text that evokes the vibrancy of Pop Art.

Although currently based out of a ranch house in central California, Taupin describes himself as an “East Coast artist” and traces his artistic awakening to encounters with modernist painting at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in the 1970s. Indeed, echoes of masterpieces by Barnett Newman, Kenneth Noland, and Mark Rothko can be detected in his nuanced, multifaceted compositions, which often integrate distinct mediums—from house, acrylic, and oil paint to wood stains, spray paint, and even collage—and thus feature layers of pigment and texture. Targets 2, (2012), for example, pays direct homage to Jasper Johns’ renowned series of the same name, while the repetition of the iconic motif in an organized grid recalls the seriality of Andy Warhol’s production line. Mathematics, (2011), meanwhile, features bold horizontal bars—recalling Newman’s “zips”—set apart by spare, quiet moments of bare canvas. Floating against those expanses of white and bearing the equation “1+2=3,” the coral, orange, and turquoise stripes purport to offer a new kind of contemporary addition.

Also noteworthy in Taupin’s creations is his original use of text. To be sure, a composition such as Bang, (2013), takes powerful cues from Ed Ruscha, whose works explore the deceptively simple intersection of image and word. The initial impression of Taupin’s painting—the word “BANG” painted in red over an arrangement of paper targets like those used for police training—similarly belies a more complex underworking. Does the piece offer a critique of our violent contemporary culture, a visual response to gun-control legislation? Or is it meant to operate on a figurative level, echoing the oppressive power of the art market and its increasing emphasis on shock-value over content? Throughout all of Taupin’s production, such juxtapositions of form and content consistently encourage viewers to re-think their initial reaction to what they see: to lend the lyrics an ear, as it were, despite the immediate seduction of a poignant melody.

Emily Nathan

 Tes-ta-ment” is on view at KM Fine Arts through September 15th, 2014. 

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