is only after we have integrated the dark side of the moon into
our world view that we can seriously begin to talk of universal
culture Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex, Carol
Taylor is one of the dozens of Atlantic Canada women artists
who, in March 1982 made the pilgrimage to Montreal to see The
Dinner Party by Judy Chicago. Some of us were so impoverished
and so involved with family and economic respon- sibilities that
being there at all was a su- preme occasion in our lives.
The lesson of The Dinner Party was that making art out of
our deepest lives was the only possible path for us as artists;
for some of us it would be years before we found the courage to
be true to our artistic vision, a vision weighted towards content
and mean- ing; for some, it would be years before we found the medium
with which to do it. With the completion of her Ageratos cycle,
Carol Taylor has come to the end of a two decade investigation of
the meaning of "woman". For Taylor, this investigation implies "man
" because of her direct experience as daughter, sister, wife, lover
and mother. The exhibition for which this catalogue is designed,
Ageratos Complete, work created from 1990 to 1994, presents
a sequence - by no means smoothly continuous - of images centered
on contemporary female issues of biological determinism and autonomy
during the last half of the twentieth century.
Her present monumental work represents a gradual shedding of forms
and materials that are barriers to direct expression; a superb draughtswoman,
Taylor has released the need to make' 'perfect', drawings or watercolours
(her Beginning series, surrealistically portraying women sheathed
in mushroom forms and associated with nature and the natural world),
has submerged her knowledge of the external body, has relinquished
the poetic or expressive poses by which "woman " has been signified
(her Awakening series of lifesize gestural drawings).
as sign, symbol or mental and social construct, has in the past
been defined and created by the powerful in each society for (mostly
) male needs. The historical images we have received of women are
almost all created by men, both by those who painted, sculpted or
poeticized the images and those who preserved them by commissioning
or purchasing them, by writing about them or by choosing them for
art galleries and museums.
several centuries, the weight of this process of selection tends
to crush women's portrayals of themselves. The gradual emergence
during the past twenty years of an understanding of the process
by which some art (mostly male and often using "woman" as subject)
is preserved and enabled to enter "art history", while the re- mainder
of art production is prevented from doing so, has been one of the
factors which now make it possible for women to persist in making
now middle-aged have matured as beneficiaries of the feminist coming-to-consciousness;
our work often parallels and reflects the great questions of our
times. We absorb our culture's tides and influences and re-create
them as meaning. During the last decade Carol Taylor's work has,
frequently subconsciously, reflected theoretical issues of representation,
cultural appropriation and use of non-traditional materials, while
grappling with the experiences of cultural loss (the old values
of maternity and fertility) , personal change (sexuality, self-valuation
and aging) spirituality (creating a meaningful framework for one's
has borrowed from archaeological images, has admired the expressions
of nu- merous living aboriginal cultures and adapted them to her
own vision, has rep- resented women's bodies at a time when theoretical
feminists were unable to justify that representation and has created,
out of the heaviest materials, a body of work that praises the living
spirit. Although critics have connected her work to goddess-worship
and the feminist historical revision of matriarchal cultures, her
work is more directly about modern woman's place in the world and
our dilemma, which all woman - old, young, lesbian, childless -
do by virtue of our periodicity, our not quite controllable bodies)
we become sucked into ancient pattern of self-abnegation,silence
and the struggle against dominance and dependence.
1982 Taylor began a series of black and white gestural figure drawings
which devel- oped into rich oil and chalk pastel works; as her scribbled
strokes focussed more intensely on volume than contour, she began
to think sculpturally. At the same time she was applying to expressive
forms the skills she had learned as a potter. Eventually, the energy
that charges the gestural drawings became the gouged and textured
clay of Ageratos, but not before she reiterated in clay the realistic
depictions of women she had first presented in watercolour.
Nurturing Circle of 1987 (an installation including an unwrapping
and naming ceremony) is a transitional work, whose gestural drawings
and life size clay figures both look back upon her representative
years and prefigure the expressive use of clay in the Ageratos
works. Taylor unwrapped each figure and named the sources of
female strength in her own life... sister- woman, daughter-woman...
allowing her audience to enter her experience.
In the same year she began making small clay figures, at first as
ornaments, later as elements in a group of constructions like hunter's
trophies - small boxy frames incorporating male/female symbols.
The backgrounds were ripped up pastel drawings of women; in front
of each hangs an element of the natural world, such as a snake or
wreath, with a prehistoric dangly form, or fetish, to tantalize
it. Taylor's studio is littered with suggestive debris...small coils
squeezed and incised, tiny clay bones, sun heads with radiating
holes, collections of discarded cup handles and cracked, glazed
shards, bits of clay resembling tiny dolls or fetuses-which is incorporated
into ongoing work.
to her work is visceral; her use of clay - gouging, incising, imprinting,
leaving sharp little points and waves, burnished or smooth with
slick glazes ...requires the viewer to feel first, then rationalize.
All of Taylor's work uses the female body. The body is the self
- archaeologic, primitive, historic, personal and present - and
the experience- of maternity and nurturing, sexual joy and endurance,
and of being silenced, oppressed, revered, hated, ignored . It is
also the spirit. Woman as reproductive body is the image Taylor
most often uses in the Ageratos cycle.
Brides of Silence (1990) is Taylor's first work using fired
clay to form the human figure on a painted ground. The female forms
are flattened, somewhat platter like, shattered, with perforations
around the edges; the artist perforated the clay in order to nail
the shapes to their mounting board. It remains a very painful piece
to view; the women are cracked, without arms and legs, with enormous
genitalia and vari- ously inscribed wombs; the nail-holding borders
around each figure isolate her (as if she were in the grotto forms
of the later Life Singers) and give her a halo of light.
The second figure from the left has a smudged face, eyes open, mouth
open, crying out, silenced by clay; this face is repeated in many
other pieces and, to me, represents the artist's mind and spirit.
later from Four Brides is The Vanishing Women #I (five
black figures) and #2 ,three white fired clay figures swaddled
in cloth patterns, their faces rudimentary and woeful, their bodies
seeming to sink into the ashy striations, flattened, their bodies
perforated but not nailed, on a dark brown ground, brown clay arches
appear above their heads. They are Indian women burned on the pyres
of their husbands. In Brown Bird Pillars, four figures, heavily
textured with scooping gestures that resemble feathers, stand in
a row with their noses and mouths covered like Muslim women, eyes
wary, a breast or womb suggested.
1990, Taylor completed Guardians, a painted triptych of three
larger than lifesize figures which appear to connect Taylor herself
to Aboriginal Canadian and African cultures. The figures are seated,
composed of upsidedown heart shapes, heads at the points, cowled
and shawled. (The use of a cowl, arch or halo shape will be repeated
over the next four years. ) The bottom lobes of the hearts can be
read as enormous breasts from which, in the central figure, clay
fetishes, feathers, bones and shells hang; to me, this is the figure
from whom the white and black companion figures gain strength, the
figure of the present.
viewer needs to address the issue of cultural appropriation in Taylor's
work; she has borrowed themes, artifacts and images from every culture
she has met, ancient and modern. I believe, however, that she uses
these images as mnemonic tools and unifying motifs to remind us
that we are flesh, and flesh with a history; at no point does she
take over an idea and use it as if she were it's originator or cultural
Some of the works on paper and her previous small drawings -Wisdom
facing East and Bride Spirits, for example - employ the
figures as columns, each figure a slight variation on the theme,
each work as a whole bearing witness both to the sacrificial function
of the body and the injustice of imprisonment. These works can be
seen, among other readings, as enshrining women in their reproductive
roles and insisting that women are literally the pillars of society.
Other drawings are "containers", placing women forms in vase-like
shapes and decorating them with buttons and incised patterns.
Pillars, a diptych of 1992/93 in which one side is the negative
of the other, places a hollowed out or empty woman-shape within
a clay shrine-like form; her faceless head, breasts and womb appear
in relief. Beside her a Virgin twin, draped, but with womb, breasts
and delicately modelled face apparent, glazed with turquoise. It
is a powerful reminder that ancient archetypes lurk behind our everyday
lives; in a poorer land, without literacy and without methods of
birth control they remember that biology is destiny.
Singers is an immense five-part work presenting single figures
under heavy clay arches, or within grottos of earth deeply cracked,
fissured, textured through time and use. To be in its presence is
to feel profound grief for all the women of the world buried in
the clay of tradition, their mouths stopped with earth, their armless
and legless bodies hidden, their breasts and wombs always available.
But one feels hope, for their bodies are singing, they are shining
through, and the central figure is a crone with arms who stares
at us with her mouth open. These five figures, seen in a row, rest
on heavy clay ledges or bands, the story of the earth, inscribed
with insects, flowers, and leaves; beneath the bands are cuneiform
messages relating to the piece; for instance, the first figure,
very rudimentary, mouth covered with a veil is accompanied by a
snakeshaped casting. This group of works should not be read as a
heirarchy or a developmental line, but as an agglomeration of possibili-
ties and histories.
separate pillar works of 1993 seem to me to state that the reproductive
years are over. Earth-Water Guardian is a two-paneled pillar
whose womb has been sev- ered in half. The interior space is full
of energy and life, and is surrounded by en- ergy particles or sperm-like
shapes and the face views us directly. Broken Pillar in three
parts, with the womb cut in half and head separate from the body,
is a title suggesting damage, but the very realistically rendered
face, eyes closed, and the tree like shape of the pillar as a whole
suggests inner strength, composure and growth as well as age. An
additional pillar work of 1993, Black Guardian, presents
a small buried figure, pressed down by an inverted arch of clay,
compressed by clay walls on either side, her abdomen a glowing spiral,
radiant in the earth and her face wistful, or perhaps expectant,
she maybe the element of fecundity in all of us.
latest works, titled New Guardian and Final Guardian,
are like many of the other figures of women, paired pillars, one
black, one white, suggesting a completion of this cycle and a new
image of the meaning of "woman". New guardian has arms to
act and legs to walk; both are cruciform figures and are foregrounded
and modelled in clay. They have stepped out of the grotto with open
mouths and open eyes.
the last six months Carol Taylor has been constructing Figurehead,
a massive bas relief sculpture commissioned by Uptown saint John
Inc. to surround the Saint John City Market Clock on the outside
back wall. Figurehead is an outgrowth of ten stunning small
clay pieces titled Daedalus' Daughter (#1 through #10). All
present the moon or face swept to the right of the framework by
massive wings scooped, sculptured and fired in ten different colours
and ten different styles of feather. Daedalus' Daughter soars
with the desire to know, in fact has risen from the clay.
Marie Koehler is
an artist, writer and curator living in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
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