Rochester artist Phil Taylor makes Owatonna debut with OAC exhibition

Though he’s exhibited all over this region, from Northfield and Faribault, to La Crosse and Winona, to Rochester and Minneapolis, Phil Taylor’s pieces haven’t been displayed in Owatonna — until now — as the Owatonna Arts Center will feature his art this month.

Taylor strips down his paintings visually, and “they also have a sound quality to them, like notes being struck on a drum or piano,” said Silvan Durben, creative director of the OAC. “Colors give the vibrations.”

Focusing only on “the basic elements” has been a conscious decision on Taylor’s part, the artist said Wednesday. “It’s a different direction, very minimal, direct, and colorful — with a little bit of action.”

“Art class was always my best class,” and Taylor was drawn to abstraction from an early age, but he eschews “painterly abstraction,” instead preferring “bigger and more direct paintings,” he said. “I’ve wanted to push the envelope.”

No question, a visit to the “fantastic abstract collection” at the National Gallery of Art when he was 14 was a formative experience, he said. “I’m sure that had a major impact on me.”

His artistic influences include Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, and Barnett Newman, he said. Taylor, who has a bachelor of arts in studio art from the Arts Student League of New York, was especially moved by Newman’s “Stations of the Cross,” considered the abstract expressionist’s masterwork.

The images developed a central visual motif that had preoccupied Newman for a decade, the vertical line, a gesture he called the “zip,” according to an essay by Philip Kennicott, art and architecture critic for the Washington Post. In “Stations of the Cross,” Newman eliminated color, painted directly on raw canvas with black and white, and produced a series of variations on the off-center zip that didn’t seem to have any direct correspondence to the actual events of Jesus Christ’s suffering and death, but, rather, Newman wanted the paintings to capture the fundamental emotional and philosophical essence of the Passion, the despairing question that Jesus asks just before his death: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

Abstract expressionism, which included in its ranks not only Rothko and Newman but the likes of Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, and Willem de Kooning, featured monumentally scaled works that stood as reflections of individual psyches of artists and attempted to tap into universal inner sources, according to an essay by The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Stella Paul. These artists valued spontaneity and improvisation, and they accorded the highest importance to process.

Taylor finds his artistic inspiration in graphic designs, particularly books and magazines from the 1960s, he said. “I get ideas from the color combinations.”

“There is a feeling just from the colors,” he added. “They’re a jumping off point for me.”

Indeed, a preponderance of time spent on any piece by Taylor is “planning,” he said. Once he’s selected his course of action, execution is swift, because “if it took any longer, I’d lose the feeling.”

Taylor, who was recently featured on “Off 90” on PBS, is also including some smaller pieces in the OAC exhibition, such as screen printings on record covers, he said. “I screen-printed abstractions on LP records.”

Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising, as music—most often jazz by Miles Davis or John Coltrane — is integral to Taylor’s creative process, he said. “There’s always music playing” when he works.

Taylor’s exhibition opens Sunday and runs through June 24. Gallery hours are 1-5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday.

Taylor is grateful for the painting knowledge he gained in college at Winona State University, but he understands the most important lessons have been discovered through artistic experience and experimentation, he said. “You learn how to drive in driving school, but you really learn how to drive when you’re out driving.”

Reach Reporter Ryan Anderson at 507-444-2376 or follow him on Twitter @randerson_ryan.