Known for her daring and inventive fusion of the centuries-old practice of marquetry, or wood inlay, with gritty and provocative subject matter, Alison Elizabeth Taylor tells tales that are unequivocally modern. This exhibition, the first museum survey devoted to Taylor, assembles dozens of works that chronicle her steady mastery of the now nearly forgotten techniques of this rarified medium and reveal her talent as an extraordinary storyteller and chronicler of 21st-century American culture. It is accompanied by a fully illustrated publication featuring essays by exhibition curator Allison Kemmerer, New Yorker journalist Naomi Fry, and novelist Lynne Tillman.
Taylor derives her imaginative tableaux from direct observation. A native Nevadan, she often uses her hometown of Las Vegas as a lens through which to examine contemporary American life. Trained as a painter, her foray into marquetry began with collages that used wood grain contact paper purchased at a 99¢ store. Later, inspired by the trompe l’oeil marquetry panels in the Duke of Urbino’s fifteenth-century Studiolo (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) she taught herself the methods of wood marquetry and began to work with real veneers.
Juxtaposing the over-the-top and lavish connotations of this craft with dystopian images of blighted desert landscapes, anonymous subdivisions, glitzy casinos, and seedy cocktail lounges, along with their inhabitants, Taylor creates a tension between surface and subject, appearance and reality. While the seductive materiality of the medium underscores and clashes with the banal and everyday nature of her subject matter, parallels can be drawn between the popularity of marquetry during the reign of Louis XIV—a time of pervasive class distinction and economic inequality—and Taylor’s deployment of the same technique to tell the story of Late Capitalist America. The splendor of the shellacked wood invites us to consider the innate humanity of marginalized subjects we might otherwise overlook as well as the often-ignored impact of a boom and bust economy on American life and culture.
Repudiating the traditional distinction between craft and high art and transcending both marquetry and painting, these meticulously crafted works, generated by an incisive and empathetic eye, are as much about seeing as they are about making. As one critic has described, Taylor is “an artist firing on all cylinders, with utter mastery of formal and thematic realms.” In our current moment of social and political upheaval, arguably a full-blown identity crisis—her work not only begs the question ‘What is painting?’ but also brings new life to the age-old question ‘What is America?’
Consisting of approximately 40 large-scale single panel works as well as a room-sized installation, Alison Elizabeth Taylor: The Sum of It traces the evolution of the artist’s work. Taylor’s early paintings explore space, line, color, and form within the limited palette afforded by the grains and tones of natural woods to more recent vividly colored “hybrids” that layer marquetry, paint, and photographic imagery to heighten the tension between textures while directly engaging with the rich art historical lineage of trompe l’oeil. Lately, and in large part due to the pandemic-induced lockdown, Taylor’s attention has turned from desert spaces to the urban outdoors of her Brooklyn neighborhood. Brand new works inspired by the interrelationship of the natural and built environment and the resilience of her neighborhood and community complete the presentation.
Curated by Allison Kemmerer, the Addison’s Mary Stripp and R. Crosby Kemper Director, the exhibition opened at The Des Moines Art Center, IA in the fall of 2022, before the Addison’s presentation in February 2023.
Generous support for this exhibition has been provided by the Sidney R. Knafel Fund and the Sherrill Collection of American Art Foundation. The accompanying publication has been generously supported by David and Pamela Hornik and the Michael and Fiona Scharf Publications Fund.
On view on Level 1, Galleries 101–109 and Exhibition Hall.
Related Exhibition Materials
First Museum Survey of Artist Alison Elizabeth Taylor Organized by Addison Gallery of American Art
Alison Elizabeth Taylor discusses her work and exhibition at the Addison. This program was presented both in person in the Museum Learning Center and virtually via Zoom.