How Bernie Taupin Reheats, Reuses, and Revives His Materials - By Arty Nelson
Starting in the '90s, Bernie Taupin—already responsible for generating a massive and an extremely potent body of song lyrics over four or five decades—began pouring his creative energies into amassing a body of visual work. Drawing upon a voracious appetite for looking at art and studying art history, Taupin began working predominately in painted abstraction. His earlier works owe heavily to the post-WWII American canon with an emphasis on Abstract Expressionism, Color Field, and Pop Art. From these influences, Taupin's group of canvases resembling “dripped grids” stand out as particularly compelling and original. Elements of words, often drawn from popular culture, media blitz, and current events would sometimes appear, effectively punctuating his abstractions. Another quite resonant aspect of Taupin’s work is the connection to “The American” and/or “Americana.” As the artist himself has commented, "I’ve been referred to as a British-born American Artist and that’s fine by me."
With “8,” Bernie Taupin has put together a tightly-curated presentation, emphasizing works drawn mostly from the assemblage process. Most of the pieces have been created in the last several years. The sparse, almost bare-bones exhibit consisting of seven wall works and a single free-standing sculpture is a muscular next-step in Taupin’s growing visual resume. Perusing the line-up, one certainly gets a sense that Taupin has thoroughly digested his inspirations and is now very much off on his own rant, adding to the storied assemblage dialogue.
Anchoring the show is the three-dimensional American Burka (2003)—to date, one of only two sculptural works the artist has executed. The central element of the piece is a female mannequin wrapped top to bottom in coarse cloth and barbed wire. Interestingly enough, though the piece is being exhibited for the first time, it was completed over a decade ago. Given the growing and, arguably, even more precarious relationship between the western world and the Muslim faith, the timing of the debut feels even more prophetic and finely aged.
Heading over to the wall with Between Batman and Minneapolis (2016), Taupin has rendered an assemblage worthy of comparison to the work of Robert Rauschenberg. A grid of everyday-life Polaroids inhabit a window in the top left of the composition, its voyeuristic banality offset by a large swath of vintage comics running along the right side of the panel. The center of piece is an elegant drizzling of string, a few more snapshots and some chicken wire, all overtop a hauntingly patina’d undercurrent of American flags. Standing before the piece, one is overcome with a sense akin to a Momento Mori, an accretion of some forgotten family’s sentimental history composed by a surviving child. Compositionally, the piece succeeds at both ends of the spectrum: random and also eerily poignant and sparsely conceived.
Another assemblage work feels carved out of a very different set of compositional principles. I Do Not Play No Rock ‘N Roll (2016) owes its title to an old Mississippi Delta Bluesman named Fred McDowell—though, for obvious reasons, feels doubly potent coming from the mind and hands of Taupin. Looking at this swirling amalgam of obliterated guitar parts, one’s eye continually zooms in to parse the wreckage and then pulls back just as urgently to take in the all-over-ness and formal punch.
With She Has To Kill Him She Loves Him (2016), the artist has removed or “scorched” large swathes of canvas and then added panels of both comics and “sexy” editorial photos of women. The layering of the piece makes it seem almost like we are seeing the blood and guts behind an idea; we are looking under the hood or behind the scenes, examining how popular culture basely traffics in and commodifies the female form. Far from flattering, the piece exudes a tawdry “dirty little secret” quality, like our collective face is being held up and forced to examine an autopsy mid-procedure.
With 8-Track Stack (2016), a churning stew of eight track tapes, smeared end to end across the plane of the work, indicates just a hint of scatter art. The titles of the tapes cover the dominant genres of the '70s, and scanning the piece is like sifting through the half-off bin at a record store. One of the more potent aspects of Taupin’s practice is the way in which he “repurposes” materials, often leaving shards of visual evidence of the component’s “past life.” In might be argued that Taupin brings these materials back to life. Given the artist’s long standing relationship to music and radio, the act of reviving the 8-Track tape cartridge in this work feels particularly poignant, a ghost of autobiography.
Volumes: Comix 4 (2016) features an excess of pop culture turned into an evenly-milled mulch of paper, caked atop of a canvas. Unlike other works in the show, the origins of the material are tougher to glean at a glance (without the tip-off from the title I’m not sure I would’ve known). With Volumes, Taupin’s work takes on a more Minimalist feel. The elegance of the finish is reminscent of Group Zero, echoing one of Günther Uecker's dense and swirling nail fields. Leaning closer, one may begin to consider the source for this paper mulch, thinking about the material’s past life that has been thoroughly digested and then regurgitated back up onto the surface.
Featuring wooden sticks on top of a mulched media field, Volumes: Crate 5 (Made In America) (2016) has a sense of buoyancy and dynamism. Unlike Comix 4, this work places the mulch field in the background instead of the foreground. This texture or visual subtext provides the setting for the floating wooden diagonals, adding a sense of lightness to the overall work. This technique that once offered a chunky density, now in Crate 5 creates a porous-feeling base, encouraging one to focus more on the delicate grating floating on top. Taupin's final touch was to bind the two planes together with twine, giving the work a sense of constraint.
With Intermission (2016), the viewer is faced with another scorched canvas. The torn-open quality of Intermission is so compelling that that piece feels more like a mounted three-dimensional sculpture than a more traditional wall piece. With Intermission, Taupin places the emphasis on the exposed aspects of the frame, many of which are adorned with string and bits of patterned fabric. Unlike the other works in the show, Intermission is unique in its emphasis on negative space; the hollowed-out areas seem to indicate a human torso, though it is uncertain whether that is the artist’s intention or a bit of magical Rorschach thinking. Amidst a show that brims and bubbles with sensory overload and bombastic compositions (in the most rewarding way), the lightness of Intermission offers a strange kind compositional relief.