Howard Taylor: Works from the Kerry Stokes Collection


Karri forest, 1963, oil on composition board in artist’s frame, 65.5 × 134.5 × 2 cm by Howard Taylor. Courtesy Kerry Stokes Collection.

The test of any really significant collection of artworks is not the number of artists represented but the depth to which you can dive into its holdings to gain insights and an understanding of the importance of an artist’s contribution to our visual culture over an entire career. Using this criteria, the current exhibition of Howard Taylor’s work at Collie Art Gallery is an outstanding example of inspired collecting. As Christine Stokes succinctly comments in her catalogue introduction, Howard Taylor “was the best kept secret in Australian art until his death in 2001.” This was in part because he chose to live and work in Western Australia (and was hence overlooked by many curators and collectors), but it was also because for Taylor his work was everything, and his secluded life in the south western corner of the country provided a buffer from unwelcome, and disruptive intrusions into his daily work routine. Nevertheless, his contribution to the visual culture of Western Australia is paramount, and his wider significance nationally and internationally deserves wider recognition. Since his death this has been rectified by a large exhibition of his work Howard Taylor: Phenomenon, mounted by the Art Gallery of Western Australia, which toured the country from 2003 – 2006. Fortunately, the Kerry Stokes Collection has also acknowledged this need by building a comprehensive overview of his practice enabling a deep and rewarding dive into a remarkable career.
Fascinated by the visual phenomenon of light falling on objects and the radiance of that light refracted by trees and their foliage, Taylor recorded the nuances of illumination and colour in the sky and the bush around his studio in the Perth Hills and later around Northcliffe, where he relocated in the late sixties. Sometimes these notations are direct transcriptions of places and events. Almost always devoid of human presence, the landscape is presented as a space for contemplation, observation and reflection. At other times, the process of distillation reduced the image down to a series of contained rectangles or a circle hovering within a rectangle. Whatever the final result, the problem was always the same; how to record the visual phenomenon he encountered every day as he moved through the forest. This was not just a process of documenting the extraordinary shapes and colours he encountered because Taylor was also intrigued by the mechanisms of perception and the ways in which these colours and forms, and associated visual phenomenon, are received by the human eye and then interpreted by the brain.
Taylor’s enchantment with the experience of looking at the forest, and with the challenge of recreating the optical illusions resulting from the play of light around natural forms, led to a very reductive and highly sophisticated exploration of the ways in which we engage with the landscape. His fascination is easily traced through the works acquired over many years by Kerry and Christine Stokes, and their curators. Over his six-decade career Howard Taylor worked diligently and resignedly outside the mainstream. Known to just a few insiders like Daniel Thomas who wrote in his obituary for The Australian that Howard Taylor was “the best artist of any kind in Australia following the death of Arthur Boyd.” This came as a surprise to most of his readers for, although represented in some of the major national public galleries, he was relatively unknown outside that small group of insiders, which included British artist Bridget Riley and curator Bryan Robertson who visited Perth in 1977 and made the pilgrimage to Northcliffe. Riley identified in Taylor an artist of integrity who had reached similar conclusions to her despite starting from a tangential direction and working in isolation. In his work she saw an echo of her cool geometry of hard-edge abstraction. However, Taylor’s interest was also in the potential to engage his viewers in the process of perception and investigate how artworks can make us aware of the nuances of looking and interpreting visual forms.
He further explored these ideas in his sculpture, both in the works carved and fabricated from the timber he found in abundance around his studio (such as Unit Remaining), and also in the dynamism of the interaction between a figure and the field it inhabits, which he explored in Log (1976), a work Riley would likely have seen in his studio. 
For those familiar with some aspects of Taylor’s work this exhibition also provides some delightful surprises including Studies for Fremantle Passenger Terminal,  Flower Mural and the metal panels for the WA pavilion at the Sydney Trade Fair in 1963, also featuring a wildflower theme. These works remind us of his major public artworks, an aspect of his practice easily overlooked because so many are now destroyed or relocated.
The drive down to Collie through the Tuart forest is exhilarating, but the return journey is so much richer after engagement with Howard Taylor’s remarkable works that both respond to how we see while simultaneously instructing us how to engage with the local environment we inhabit.
Howard Taylor: Works from the Kerry Stokes Collection is on show at Collie Art Gallery until 11 December.
Professor Ted Snell AM CitWA, Honorary Professor in the School of Arts & Humanities at Edith Cowan University, has published several books, including Howard Taylor: Forest Figure published by Fremantle Arts Centre Press in 1995.

Howard Taylor in his Studio, Northcliffe WA, 1988, silver gelatine photograph, 43.2 × 29.4 cm, by John Austin.


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