What do you see when you gaze at one of Taylor White's paintings?
Take, for instance, a minute to view “Reba, Fresh Biscuit Smell,” a mixed-media painting on drywall featuring a photo of Reba McEntire, a marshmallow package, and a pink swirl.
Or regard “1-900-FLUFFY” composed of acrylic, oil, charcoal, spray paint, airbrush, stitching, fabric, paper, and plastic on canvas. Among squares and lines, the only describable shapes are three heads and the word FLUFFY in running ink.
Perhaps take in “I Drink Sparkling Water, I Chase Bandits Through the Countryside, I Love Her,” featuring a stool, a plus sign, a distorted mini van, lines and other accoutrements.
He doesn't want to know what you see. That's not because he doesn't care—it's just not really the point.
White, who creates people-sized paintings out of his basement in Stafford County, has been receiving international attention because of his often-contradictory images and refusal to follow convention.
White is part of an ensemble of artists who are bored with the traditional ways of getting discovered. Since 2015, he has posted his work on Instagram and garnered a following. It was through that mobile space that he found gallery representation and has been a part of recent shows in New York, Brisbane, and Berlin. “Gallery owners and critics hunting emerging artists through Instagram,” he said. “It's exciting, a person can have great ideas and talk about them intelligently without credentials, and there's no gatekeeper.”
He gets the word “fresh” a lot in reaction to his work. In fact, the show he is part of in Brisbane is called FRESH AF with AF standing for “abstract figuration.” At its core, though, his work centers around the theme of contradiction. “I naturally observe contradictory behaviors in people, and that makes its way into art,” he said. “I'll paint large features, marks, and stare at it and think, ‘This must have a large printed David Hasselhoff.’ I like the idea that people think it's funny or it's garbage. I worry when something is too agreeable, too easily acceptable as decor.”
In his own life, White is familiar with contradictions. He grew up in North Carolina and created art as a child. But when he got older, he joined the military, craving that kind of structure. White, now 39, returned to college at the University of Mary Washington a few years ago, graduating in 2017 with a degree in studio art. “Going to school for art kind of washed all of that off of me,” he said about his military experience. “It brought me back to a place I remember from childhood. I'm having a lot of fun these days. I spend a lot of time laughing at my work and making dumb faces with my wife and our two kids.”
Most of White's work is on a large scale and involves memories, or fragments of memories, and segments of overheard conversations as a starting point rather than a clear reference. “I enjoy the opportunity of allowing myself to just wander off into the woods and get lost in a painting,” he said. “Often I'll develop a region of a painting that I really enjoy, something I'm proud of, and I usually become interested in daring myself to destroy it, or to bluntly contradict it in some way. I'm interested in things that rest right on the edge of being either lethally serious or completely absurd.”
As a rule, there's no structure to this process. “If I did follow something like that, my work would implode,” he said. In that way, his paintings become the record of something being solved while also attempting to resist the urge for balance.
He paints twelve hours a day, seven days a week, using a rapid approach with non-standard tools. Almost anything is game: construction tools, a drywall knife, broken wood. Sometimes, he'll hit the canvas with paint in total darkness, then solve for whatever the results were. That could mean cutting the canvas into pieces, scavenging from other works, or producing a photograph on the canvas that becomes part of the background.
He saves all scraps of paper, canvas, felt, and wood to create a restrictive challenge by using first what is only in the studio. Trying not to produce waste becomes a restrictive challenge. “I'm trying to subvert painting history,” he said. “All until now, it is based on existing information and reordered.”
While he paints now in the basement of his home, White is considering a big move to a larger city and an exterior studio. “I like the feeling of waking up at 3 AM and going to paint without overthinking what I'm doing, but in having an outside studio, it creates another restrictive challenge,” he said.
Also through Instagram, White has found residencies to further expand his work. He recently returned from Madrid where the language barrier inspired him to look at works without narrative. “When I look at graffiti in the U.S., I'm dismissive of it because I can read the narrative and that's what sucks you in,” he said. “But not understanding that allows you to look at the form of what is composed and find something different being communicated.”
He will be uprooting his work again with a residency in Brooklyn's Greenpoint neighborhood next month. “I have to respond to the change in environment and shift my thinking,” he said. And whether that reordered chaos and jumble of signals and impulses evokes a laugh, a deep understanding of something innate in humanity, or a grimace—that's just fine.
Photography by Aaron Spicer