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It’s not painting, not drawing, (for the most part, though a few recent works do feature applied pigment). But you likely won’t know until you are within striking distance (almost close enough to touch) of Alison Elizabeth Taylor’s collages that the work is marquetry, a kind of rigorously illustrative technique consisting of layers of carved wood. The actual architecture of the figures and the ground is cut and shaped out of veneer, in which the colors are calibrated and the grain of the wood is angled just so, to mimic the texture of a woman’s hair pulled up tight into a bun, or the long, smooth bridge of a horse’s nose highlighted by the sun, or skin on the left elbow of someone playing the slots, or the rust stains on the back of an old, ceramic bathroom sink. You want to follow all the topographical shifts that shape and contour the inhabitants of her collages, but Taylor makes so many clever turns they are dizzying. There is almost too much sumptuous elaboration of the everyday — so much so that nothing is really allowed to be quotidian. A tethered horse in a field seems to be made up of at least 50 different hues and patterns. You look at the horse for its riot of mottling and almost miss the two naked bearded white men standing next to it. As soon as I noticed the complicated nature of the work in The Backwards Forward, I regretted not having arrived earlier so I could give this show more time.
There’s a great deal of surrealist play in this exhibition. The two naked men with a horse stand in a field against the backdrop of a sky that looks produced by Photoshop circa 2004, in “Forgive me, Mr. Eakins” (2017). The casually gambling woman minds her screen while the wall behind her partially disappears in the cut-out silhouette of a server carrying drinks, through which a house in a suburban subdivision becomes visible “Sam’s Town” (2016). These scenes give the show an uncanny tang, but there’s another aspect that grabs you too. In Taylor’s partial self portrait, “The Sum of It” (2017) in which she hides herself behind a camera lens aimed at the bathroom mirror, there’s much stuff to play with: a hairdryer, books, soap, multicolored tile, toothbrushes. I’m reminded of the implicit promise that a Fordist economy made to the US worker in the early years of the 20th century: an ever increasing standard of living buoyed by increasingly sophisticated consumer goods. Of course, that was true only for so long, until the inevitable rapaciousness of capital took less and less stock of what workers want or need. But we still have the things. That’s the rub of modern life: even when it’s empty of purpose it’s full of stuff. The things you own do not keep you from running to the diversion of easy money won and lost, or the fantasy of a sky that you yourself invent.
The Backwards Forward continues at Jame Cohan’s downtown gallery (291 Grand Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through December 22.