The Boys of Summer
by Anna Stielau
It is always summer here.
We are glamourous and we are amorous and we are garrulous and we are lazy. We eat only ice-cream: cherry, perhaps, or pistachio. We are connoisseurs of whisky and of wine. We are swimming pool enthusiasts. Salt water pools, of course, never chlorinated…how gauche to think we’d stoop so low. Even the breeze does not dare disturb our hair. In return, we let it lick our faces, but only when its breath is sweet. From our balconies we have a view of the bay. Surely if dusk came it would set the sea at the horizon steaming. But it does not – it will not– come. We are caught in the radiant light of an endless afternoon, forever killing time until tea. We admire one another from the comfort of our deckchairs, or propped up against the tennis court fence, or lounging on the lawn, but we remember not to look too closely. We have sunglasses where our eyes should be. Who would want to see things only as they are? Ours is a world made tawny and seamed with gold. We are more beautiful than you.
There is an oneiric quality to Michael Taylor’s most recent works. His subjects hover against their backgrounds as if seen through the haze of a heat mirage or the fog of memory. Layered washes throw limbs, however loosely described by the artist’s gestural brushstroke, into sharp relief. Figures fight for space in this dream-scape. Here a set of sloping shoulders wins out, there a man clad in what appears to be a Victorian bathing suit muscles into view. The initial impression is one of convivial busyness. Even the colours seem to gleefully quarrel on the canvas, keyed-up pinks and apricots and blues jostling up against one another with relative impunity.
At first glance, the bands of boys that roam through Taylor’s imagination seem devoid of context. They are frequently blond. Their attire is generic but expensive. They could be holiday-makers or courtiers, athletes or men of leisure. Distant landscapes, when included, are pleasantly rural but in a cultivated way; a park or a garden or a boardwalk.
The faces of Taylor’s figures- what little we can see of them- are amiably vacant. They do not quite meet the viewer’s gaze.
These are paintings with a past, in dialogue more with the history of painting than an immediate political present. References to William Hogarth abound. Admittedly, Hogarth has always been something of a lightning rod for artists. He appealed first and foremost to the Puritans, because although he considered himself “a painter of chaos and cruelty”, Hogarth was primarily a moralist. The sequential work that catapulted him to fame, “A Harlot’s Progress”, tells the story of a young country girl named Moll Hackabout who arrives bright-eyed in London to seek employment as a seamstress, only to be seduced into a life of prostitution followed by a painful death from venereal disease.
A Rake’s Progress, the work for which the artist is perhaps most well-known, presents a point of departure for contemporary descendants as disparate as David Hockney and Yinka Shonibare. Responses to this series of eight engravings run the gamut from homage to parody.
Hogarth’s appeal may lie in the fact that his recurring theme- the rewards of virtue and the cost of vice- is both timeless and universal. In A Rake’s Progress, handsome Tom Rakewell squanders his fortune on gambling, prostitutes and petty luxuries. Psychically and socially alienated, Rakewell finds himself first in debtor’s prison, then incarcerated in Bethlehem mental asylum. He makes poor choices in Hogarth’s eyes, and he must be seen to pay for them.
For Hogarth the rake represents a specifically masculine brand of waywardness. The pursuit of pleasure defines him. He is a quintessential consumer, driven by the desire for material goods, for sex, for food, for liquor. More than that, the libertine also embodies the intersection between social status and base appetite. He is a gentlemen or beautiful or rich, and he falls. Appetite triumphs over standing.
Michael Taylor’s rakes allude this clearcut moral reading. They revel in their own decadence. The viewer encounters them always at ease, sexy and uncaring, and never fallen from grace.
The sun does not rise here. It overflows.
Somewhere cicadas are singing.
And still, we are more beautiful than you.
A true story:
A miserly nobleman once sent for William Hogarth to commission a painting for his stairwell. He desired to see an interpretation of the biblical story of Pharoah and his royal host drowned in the Red Sea: a good lesson for his children, undoubtedly, that dark and bloody corner of the Old Testament. Hogarth took the job despite heavy hints that he would not be paid well for his trouble.
When the artist finally put down his brush and demanded payment, the nobleman saw that the space allotted for his marvellous picture had been painted in a solid sheet of red. To hell with this, he thought, and declared that he had no intention of paying an artist who had done nothing but lay out his ground. “Ground!” laughed Hogarth, “there is no ground in the case, my lord, it is all sea. The red you perceive is the Red Sea. Pharaoh and his host are drowned as you desired and cannot be made objects of sight, for the sea covers them all”.
Hogarth was fond of a punchline, and snatched his chance to be the protagonist of his own moral parable. He does, however, present an intriguing possibility: beneath even the most innocent painted surface, something unseen may be lurking. The dead are adrift on the tide.
However comfortably Michael Taylor’s languid boys crowd his canvasses, however spectacular their excesses, his vision is not simply idealised. There is an air of the ripe but also faintly rotten about his subjects, like peaches that have just begun to spoil in the sun. Take The Young Men of Avalon (Fruit Bowl). The parenthesised addition invites the viewer to imagine Taylor’s boys as objects for consumption. Even Avalon, that legendary Arthurian summer isle, means “Island of Fruit Trees”.
Fruit is sweet and soft. It can be tempting. Forbidden fruit. It can be queer. Fruitfly. It can be crazy. Fruitcake. But it is bound for decay.
I see the boys of summer in their ruin
Lay the gold tithings barren
Setting no store by harvest, freeze the soil
There in their heat the winter floods
Of frozen loves they fetch their girls
And drown the cargoed apples.