By Julie Pearson
To call Robert Taylor a thoughtful artist is an understatement. For him, discussing the concepts behind his paintings is almost as satisfying as painting itself. Not that his work is dry or unfeeling. On the contrary, his use of symbolism, allegory and distortion to comment on Native American history and spirituality evokes powerful reactions from viewers.
“I think my work is more religious than anything else,” says Taylor from his home in Broken Arrow, OK. “I’m partial to early Northern Renaissance artists such as Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel whose use of symbolism had both spiritual and philosophical concerns. At the same time, their paintings were almost cryptic in nature.”
Of Cherokee/Osage/Blackfoot and Crow descent, Taylor also delights in hidden meanings. But his inspiration comes from native religions, not Christianity. Buffalo skulls, dance staffs and fetishes abound in his work, part of a symbolic vocabulary borrowing heavily from Plains Indian culture. “All art consists of symbols that give birth to different emotions. The symbols I’m interested in have to do with psychology and the human need to understand the spiritual aspects of ourselves,” he says.
The birds of prey in his works are synonymous with native spirituality. The eagle, for example, has the ability to fly higher than other birds and is therefore closest to the Creator. Taylor also paints hawks, kingfishers and ravens, which he may depict as companion-helpers or as fetishes on headdresses, dance staffs, necklaces or bundles. He is especially intrigued by fetishes and religious paraphernalia, finding in them the highest expression of people’s humanness. “Our existence is summarized by what we perceive and think about things. Even animals can make certain types of tools. But we’re the only ones driven to create art,” he says.
Just as fetishes in tribal cultures help carry their owner into a different thought process, Taylor’s painted fetishes transport the viewer into the artist’s world—a world of Amerindian subjects with enlarged hands and feet, beefy torsos and wizened faces. The use of distortion in connection with Indian subjects is hardly new, and it comes as no surprise to learn Taylor has been influenced by New Mexico painter Paul Pletka. Like Pletka, he has a definite agenda in mind: focusing his audience on the world of the spirit, not the body.
While his bird fetishes are rendered with careful, almost hyper-real brushstrokes—perhaps a legacy from his uncle, wildlife artist Wallace Hughes Taylor’s approach to human anatomy is extremely stylized. “I’ve never been interested in the human form, except as a vehicle to show the human condition.”
Indeed, what really distinguishes the Oklahoman’s work from others in this vein is his extensive use of political, social and mystical allegory. Not that he doesn’t occasionally paint an image for its own sake. But paintings like Refusing to Hunt the New Buffalo are typical of his oeuvre.
This image of a traditionally dressed warrior flanked by two Indians wearing white face paint and European clothing makes a moving visual statement on its own. But as Taylor explains its symbolism, it takes on additional impact. Each of the warriors in the painting represents a different time period. The one in the middle incarnates a free and thriving Plains culture in the early 1800s. The figure on the left with his eyes stitched shut represents a dead culture, the part of Indian America that died upon contact with European settlers. “He’s been replaced by the new Native American on the right, who accepts change but wants to remain rooted in the old ways,” notes Taylor. “He’s pulling the traditional warrior toward the future while the dead man anchors him to the past.”
Emphasizing parallels as well as inversions of values between the two cultures, Taylor adds, “Both the Indian and Anglo cultures use the eagle as overseer, but in different ways. The buffalo-head nickel on the Indians’ shirts symbolizes the U.S. government, which has become the new buffalo.”
From the worm-eaten apple invoking the Indians’ expulsion from Eden because of invading Americans, to the hobbled horse fetish hanging from the traditionalist’s neck, to the food and tobacco ration and bingo cards adorning his dance stick, Refusing to Hunt the New Buffalo hauntingly summarizes 500 years of Native American history.
A similar allegorical complexity underlies most of Taylor’s major works, including his one rare foray into Cherokee subject matter. His painting of Andrew Jackson uprooting a mighty oak tree that bears faces from the Five Civilized Tribes won the coveted Jerome Tiger Award in Tahlequah, OK, in 1987.
Given such didactic impulses, it should come as no surprise that Taylor’s first sustained attempts at art took the form of political cartoons during the 1960s. Having drawn a low draft number in the Vietnam lottery, Taylor enlisted in the Navy where his doubts about war and the military only multiplied. While his fellow sailors stationed on Lake Michigan spent their leaves at the movies or in bars, he and his buddies found excitement at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. They heard speakers like Jane Fonda, Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman and “got tear-gassed on a regular basis,” he jokes. But Taylor had his own opinions, lampooning radicals as well as right-wingers, and he expressed them in the forum of day underground papers. “I submitted editorials everything was freelance, but I had this game of illustrating them with cartoons or caricatures. The papers were never interested in anything I wrote, but they used my cartoons quite a bit,” he laughs.
In the same way the war sharpened his philosophical bent, those political cartoons made him aware of his latent interest in drawing. After the ship he served on was decommissioned, Taylor returned to Tulsa, OK, and enrolled in art classes at a local junior college. To his surprise and frustration, his teacher (also head of the art department) spent little time explaining the how-to’s of painting, focusing instead on subject matter. “One of the first assignments was to do a watercolor. I started one and she came up to me and said, ‘I’ve looked at some of the other things you’ve been doing. Why do you always have to do Indians?’”
Though Taylor forced himself to finish the class, at semester’s end he hired illustrator Herb Robb to give him private lessons at home. Robb quickly taught him the basics, introducing the concept of values by making him paint exclusively in black and white. “I worked on the same painting for six weeks—till I ran out of money,” laughs Taylor. Fortunately, the private lessons renewed his confidence and inspired him to try another class, this one taught by watercolorist Pat Gordon. Even so, it took a panoply of jobs and years of painting after hours before he was ready to switch to painting full-time in 1989.
The black-and-white still life done with Robb still hangs in his studio, along with a beaver-skin hat that belonged to his Osage/ Cherokee grandfather. The hat, trimmed with frayed red-tail hawk feathers and surrounded by paintings in progress, reminds him of his own spiritual journey and the sacrifices required to realize one’s dreams.
Precisely because of his lack of formal instruction, Taylor eagerly acknowledges his debt to other artists—not only to Pletka but also to Texas painter John Biggers, whose elegant distortions emphasize the tribal heritage and spirituality of his African-American models. In a way, each new exposure through exhibitions or art books helped confirm the artist’s intuition that he was, indeed, on the right track. Often he found that the stylistic devices that appealed to him had a practical aspect as well oversized hands, for example. “To be honest, when I started out it was easier for me to draw hands large. They also helped showcase what interested me: the artifacts.”
Similarly, his stylized faces make it easier to paint group compositions and to underline the common heritage of all tribal groups. These wizened visages symbolize ancient knowledge as expressed in dance, song and prayer. The artist is particularly interested in the similarities between North and South American cultures, including their focus on death not as the final stage of life but as a transition into another phase of being. “Anthropologists dwell on human sacrifice in Central American cultures, but there was another idea behind it. They believed the body was just a vehicle. Whatever they could do or take to get from point A to point B was valid.”
Whether expressed consciously or indirectly, as in Pilgrimage, a painting dealing with the repatriation of artifacts, the idea of death as inseparable from life is woven throughout Taylor’s imagery. Perhaps because of this, viewers occasionally misinterpret some of his symbolism, including his images of dissolving flesh. “I’ve heard people refer to my ‘exploding heads.’ They’re not exploding, they’re dissipating. They are becoming one with their environment through prayer, making their physical being meaninless.”
In terms of his own thought process, Taylor clarifies his concepts by writing. “It helps makes things more fluid for me,” he observes. Sometimes happening as the painting evolves, sometimes afterwards, his printed meditations are often displayed alongside his work.
By contrast, the act of painting for Taylor is fiercely physical. He works without brushes, poking, rubbing and blending his acrylics by hand on masonite boards. Rich, jewel-like colors that are carefully varnished give his acrylics the look of oils.
Like most artists, Taylor actively seeks feedback from his family wife Susan Leggett and 13 year old daughter Mallory. And time permitting, once he finishes a painting, he’ll set it aside for a while to “get some perspective on it. It’s best to not have any prejudice looking at it,” he notes.
On those rare occasions when Taylor accepts a commission for a portrait, he approaches it, not surprisingly, as an allegorical tableau. He identifies certain aspects of the collector’s personality through symbols, then arranges the symbols to make an effective composition. When a wealthy overseas collector he met through the Jane Goodall Foundation asked Taylor to “paint his soul,” it sounded a little dramatic, but the artist agreed. He produced an enigmatic, jigsaw-puzzle image of the man, shipped it off and waited for a response.
“After six or eight months, I wrote and called but got no reply. Finally I said, ‘Look, if you don’t want the painting, send it back,” recalls Taylor. “A month later, I got a call from London. The man had been kidnapped, escaped and was hiding out under government protection. But he did want the painting!”
Featured in June 1997