John Taylor was born in Darvel, Ayrshire in 1936. He gained a Diploma of Art in Drawing and Painting at Glasgow School of Art in 1959 and Higher Diploma of Art at Birmingham Polytechnic 1972-73 where he studied screenprinting.

There follows a selection of essays by various authors on the artist’s work over the years.

On a Thin Crust, 1996

Donny O’Rourke 1

John Taylor is an important, as opposed to a self-important artist and the hype and tripe that have boosted some careers is entirely absent from the C.V. of this adept and committed colourist.

His life didn’t quite flash before my eyes when I saw his retrospective exhibition at The Third Eye Centre in 1982, but I got a powerful sense of a big talent deliberately confining itself to comparatively small spaces; and had an opportunity too, to see how that talent had evolved — attained its poise.

With greedy sophistication John has looked at the Abstract Expressionists, at twentieth-century European art and at his colourist predecessors in Scotland. He’s also looked around at the lie if this an other lands. And looked pretty deeply within too, without ever indulging that introspection.

I’m proud to have an oil of his from the early 60’s on my living room wall and I peer into the calm depths of his abstract prints nearly every day. It was a pleasure to make a file about him: it is a pleasure still to drink and think with him, to prowl the top floor of the East End building where he has his studio. There, or on another top floor (that of a West End tenement with views across the city), John moves with spare sure-footed grace. Just like he does in the mountains. But if he loves high places, he never looks down. His is a humane, profoundly egalitarian vision. These are pictures modest enough in scale to grace most walls. In his landscapes, when people turn up, they hold their own. John is in awe of, but never dwarfed by, nature.

It’s exactly 10 years since John and other pioneers went East to open up their gallowgate studio. What marvels have emerged from their atelier in that decade. You wouldn’t know it from the way he tackles a Munro, or from his brisk, alert city walks, but John Taylor has just turned 60.

He’s lived with the rigout and vigour, the passion and compassion, the brave exemplary seriousness of the tried and true artist for who seeing is being – and vice-versa. And yet he will tell you a joke, or sing you a song, or dollop you out a plateful of stew with just the same utterly unpretentious exhilaration and generosity.

Mentor, master printmaker, moving spirit in the studio and gallery developments of the last 30 years, John Taylor distills a lot of life and learning into these deceptively austere new paintings.

In some, a tree and a stick figure are rendered equal in their parched proximity. There’s a grim Beckettian grin behind a lot of the work. Taylor’s capering, copulating Beast is a revelation in more ways than one. Life in all its precariousness asserts itself very quietly. In a room that’s also a womb and a tomb, hostages sag into near abstraction – le baggage right enough, in that callously apt French phrase.

Taylor’s never painted like this. Taylor’s always painted like this. the most abstract of these new images do a little to imply a lot. Their angles dwindling to a smudged dead end it takes the viewer all the way back to Taylor’s Rothko inflected experiments of the late 50’s and the magnificent opening stretch of that influential Third Eye Show.

Back then, Taylor’s world was fragile: fragmentation always a hazard. It remains a risk. There is nothing glib about the artist’s serene insistence on trying to keep it together. However hopefully he travels, Taylor is no tourist with a sketch pad. The eerie, lambent vastness of the Australia John has discovered through his partner Jacki Parry, is in glowing contrast to the pale and interesting Scotland Taylor tramps and paints.

“Feminine” imagery has always been a crucial aspect of John Taylor’s iconography. It seems to me the refusal of this classically masculine craftsman, and outdoors man, to conform to macho Scottish type, is a vital attribute of this and indeed all his work.

The sneak preview I was granted was a privilege. This is a terrific show by an understated and underrated artist.

New Work, 1991

James Kelman 2

In John Taylor’s work of recent years the development is fraught with risk. He has concentrated on very particular aspects of the earlier geometric landscapes; areas previously ’empty’ are now occupied and much of the ambiguity is gone. At first came walls and tombs and crosses, charnel-houses, those dark places where the bones of people lie. This derived from an idea “festering away in my mind”, of “the rows and rows of serried stones, all the same standing mute in a barren desert land, a few sharp cacti, a hard metallic blue sky …”. The bulk of this series of paintings were shown in his The View from the Bunker exhibition.

Since then skeletal shapes have formed and assumed life, to a point immediately before death and/or obliteration. The difficulty with attempting an exposition of the new work lies in finding verbs of the necessary subtlety. Taylor is working backwards and forwards, but within that one awful moment of time. It’s a form of temporal movement that splits the tense and ordinary language seems incapable of apprehending it. This might help indicate why such an eerie yet peculiarly intimate feeling pervades the series. Often Taylor uses the same or similar silkscreen composition, then applies watercolour. Thus the same five female figures keep vigil in different pictures, the only change atmospheric, of light and shade. While the women watch the horizon the sixth of their number has fallen, unnoticed; or perhaps unremarked, they have passed beyond the point of return. The horror lies in their sure knowledge of the finality of the moment. They are already in limbo.

Obliteration and occasional revelation. But never reflection. The passivity of Taylor’s figuration seldom allows for that. Nobody can reflect on their own death.

In What Now Little Man the male figure looks inwards, behind him the fiery red explosion occurring he seems to have recognised this, while the space he occupies is already a chamber. In Her Glory the female figure faces the same direction: the moment has come, and gone; in place of the fiery red is an awful, revelatory light. The legs of the upright male in I’ll Protect You are clumsily askew as he attempts to stand over the body of his fallen companion ( note the similarity between this composition and the artist’s gouache Figure in Flight, painted back in 1961). In this series, generally, where any hint of activity is disclosed it is from the female figures, the males not so much negative but quiescent. A couple are leaning in She’s the One, the female to our left; the moment has arrived but why do we feel that she’s taken the lead? Compare It’s Now, set in the past where the same couple stand upright, the male figure also to your left, a position which in this context is positive, yet he remains passive.

Aspects of the theme move and remove. A jumble of limbs resembles a large, unwieldy tumbleweed. Groups huddle together, transfixed, caught in time and caught in place. In Lowland Address the group has buried one of their number; in another painting we cannot tell whether the skeletal shapes are figures or shapes scorched in stone. The slightest introduction of new colour resonates like an almighty splash. Be prepared for the lush beauty of Then The Sun Came Out. And in art of this quality, the distinction between ’nude’ and ’naked’ is never rendered more powerfully.

For the past 30 years this artist has imposed severe constraints on himself, working through his own preoccupations, formal and thematic, going with the process, whether in oil, acrylic, watercolour or silkscreen; attempting sculpture, in paper, in bronze – whatever lies within his means and will allow possible development, to realize a different potential. The pre-‘Bunker’ abstracts are usually referred to as landscape yet that sensuousness belongs more to people than geography, and similarly with the marvellous screenprints he produced in the late sixties to early seventies where the displaced parts of abstractions are every bit as human as they are ’envelopes’ or ‘zips’.

But abstractions is always enigmatic and enigma demands contemplation. If little outside reference exists within the work then attention can only be gained by other means, by more formal considerations. This is one reason why folk give up looking. Even titles cause problems in abstract work; they are rarely other than retrospective and too explicit a reference must dissipate the ambiguity, just as too generalised a title may imply the ‘symbolic’. I remember some years ago in a pub with John Taylor, I was muttering away about how I would like to see ‘actual people’ in contemporary painting for a change. Aye, so would I, he said and gave a smile that made me change the subject. For any artist there is only the process and s/he must keep faith with it. There is nothing wrong with more representational forms of art. It’s just that they cannot seem to split the moment; ultimately this means they cannot cope with the present. In an ideal world it is obscenity that is obliterated, not human beings. Taylor’s art is important art, beautiful art.

The View From the Bunker, 1987

Cordelia Oliver 3

In his latest painting John Taylor seems to me to achieve a quality that is rare in contemporary Scottish art, combining as they do a first impression of extreme beauty with a subsequent sense of disquiet. Disquiet, that is, not with the artist’s achievement, nor with his manner of painting, but at the message his work conveys.

These paintings by a Glasgow artist who, to my mind, has been all along seriously underestimated, reveal a notable change in style from what he was doing over the past few years. The high-key, fine-edged, sail-like shapes and the pale, silky, evocative colours which gave his earlier watercolours their lively, exhilarating clarity, calling up suggestions of sun and wind and speed whether on land or water, have all been discarded, maybe outgrown, and in their place a new sombre note has been not just touched and held, but developed in a very interesting way. Not that this recent work, most of it in watercolours, though on a more generous scale than is usual in that medium, has grown dull in colour. On the contrary, the informing hue is the kind of throbbing blue that touches a deep spring of emotion hard to explain in rational terms. The series had its source in a small coloured snapshot of a relative’s war grave in the desert, one of a regiment of identical headstones stretching to infinity in a waste of limitless sand under a baking sun: impersonal to a frightening degree.

The paintings take this seed of an idea and expand it in a variety of ways but always from the same basic source. The tiny colour print, sometimes populated by headstones and sometimes by small stark crosses, becomes the only aperture to daylight in a low, cavernous, fortified structure. This gives the series its original title, The View from the Bunker, the latter taking on the aspect of the charnel house — a source of security or a sanctuary gone terribly wrong.

Nothing in these paintings is realistic; nothing heavily overstated as so often happens in todays “painting with a message”. In fact, the very beauty of these works — for Taylor is a true colourist, now as always, and his sensitivity to the need to match craft with content is as acute as ever — has the effect of intensifying the sense one is given of lacrimae rerum, of pity as well as anger that humanity should be so determinedly heading, lemming-like, for its own destruction.

The message is symbolic but powerful. It is also pictorial, depending not on illustrative figuration but on elements that, as often with this artist, seem akin to music. The various forms assumed by the “bunker” and its changing relationships with the tiny “aperture” which remains, in each case, the focal point of the composition; the groupings of the skeletal figures in the sombre foreground space — oddly phosphorescent and more like stick insects that human remains — are all worth a close look. Indeed these paintings, more than most, reward time spent in looking: you find yourself increasingly interested in the “how” as well as the “why” — the means by which some of the effects are achieved. But no matter how intriguing the means and the effects, the work in its totality has the last word, always.

  1. Donny O’Rourke is a Scottish poet, writer, journalist and broadcaster. ↩︎

  2. James Kelman is a Booker Prize winning Scottish author. ↩︎

  3. Cordelia Oliver was a Scottish journalist, artist and art and theatre critic. Guardian Obituary↩︎