Artist Interviews 2021

Taylor Smith  
By Laura Siebold

Taylor Smith is a contemporary artist who addresses important topics like consumerism, personal and collective memory, and social and cultural inequalities in her artwork. Taylor is known for mixing different media, like old floppy diskettes that she paints over to construct a layered product that combines her personal past and memories with those of other people, merging universal history in the present. Taylor imitates many of Pop Art’s most prominent works in her notable Floppy Diskette Icon Portrait Paintings series about which she states: “To me, these paintings are recycled American myths.” In many instances, Taylor questions the value and cultural universality of the concept of the American Dream and addresses personal and collective digital identity formation through art.

In her interview, Taylor talks about her European art education, the scientific language of her work, recycling art and her many different series, ranging from mixed media to more literary-based approaches to art, originating in personal memory, advertisements, and vintage newspapers as sources of everyday life.

In your Luxurious Disaster: A 21st Century Tale of Love, Fame & Tragedy series, you mix vintage ads, comic book art, record covers, as well as images of consumer products and luxury brands. What is the intention behind this series?

Well, the intention behind this series is simply to reflect what I see around me. I think we can all see rampant consumerism that has been building in momentum for decades. But this series of paintings is not really about that. This is simply one element in a complex layering of what seems to surround people today. I’m combining references to my own nostalgia, the opulence I see in advertising, and I try to make no hiding of the fact that I reference art history, specifically some of the paintings and movements in art that have influenced me.

I based the title for this series not only as a reference to the dark commentary of Andy Warhol’s 1962 Disaster Series, but also because virtually every day in contemporary society feels like an impending disaster cloaked in luxury. These paintings are a loosely connected group of works that take a very broad range of subjects, including luxury designer brands, everyday consumer products, the human body, prescription drugs, pop art imagery, street art and glitched computer data corruption. I use oil painting and silkscreen to create these works on panel, paper and canvas. I am using copyrighted images from history, popular culture, as well as art history to tell maybe my own story of the stories of those around me. I am subtly altering images or/and their context, undermining the meaning and tone of my source material. To me, these paintings are recycled American myths.

I hope through these paintings people can confront their feelings about and reflect upon what is swirling loudly around them but very often goes unnoticed.

What fascinates you about American myths and failures of American society and the concept of the American Dream?

Maybe these works are a critical take on the haves versus the have-nots. I try to create a visual rhythm with these paintings, but on a basic level they are intentionally very chaotic. When I am creating, I am contrasting the highs and lows, the tragedies of our time, the ones that are expressed in specific moments, crisis and the failures and inequalities of the American dream. I mean for me the American dream seems very damaged and broken. But was it ever a viable term to begin with? It seems to be a very exclusive term. The “American dream” has not been the same for Black, Indigenous and People of Color, as it has been for White people, both historically and in today’s world. The modern-day definition of “the American Dream” was born in the mid-1950s, during the rise of post-war consumerism and this brings me back to why I weave in the symbols and theme of nostalgia and consumerism. Whose dream is it really?

We are curious about your artistic roots. When did you first start experimenting with different materials and styles?

My mother was a painter and I, when I was young in my teenage years, began experimenting creatively in the practice of writing, but I soon turned to visual art. I was in love with the abstract impressionists, and I took great inspiration from Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchel, and many others. In my 20s, I moved to Europe and found great inspiration and excitement around the street art scene in Berlin. I would regularly paint on the Berlin Wall and during the times I would find myself in East Berlin, I made it my mission to beautify the drab buildings and alleyways. I studied at the Academy of Fine Arts there, and from that point moving forward, my work has become more and more figurative.

How would you define your signature style? What can viewers take away from your art?

My style has changed significantly over the years. I work in different series and some of these series can be visually quite different. But certain elements do repeat themselves across my work. My use of chemical molecules, for instance, is a method to code a visual language within a painting that speaks to the micro and macro elements of things I want to say. I think viewers can always find the humor, references to history and social commentary that I build into my work.

Your paintings contain fragments of culture and employ elements of different artistic styles like Pop Art/Culture, Renaissance, Abstracted Realism, and Comic Art. What kind of research do you do prior to using elements from different styles and historical decades?

I do research the chemical and mathematical elements that I sue into certain works. I research what I want to say, so that the scientific language, which is an unexpected but lyrical combination with visual art, is always correct. But, otherwise, I rely on my lifetime of studying art history and time spent in museums to make continuous references to artist and art movements that inspire me.

How do you brainstorm for your next project? Can you tell us a little about a unique source of inspiration?

I seem to always have a list of things inside my head that I want to incorporate into future projects. I read and travel a great deal, so the ideas flow in faster than the projects flow out. I think if I am lucky enough to continue creating when I am in my 90s, I might be able to come close to exhausting my list. But, then again, the future is unwritten, so I will likely never get through my ever-growing list!

How did you first come up with the idea of using recycled floppy discs as a base to cover your canvas prior to painting on it for your Floppy Diskette Icon Portrait Paintings series? Can you share some insights on the combination of painting and technology in this series and in your work in general?

I found a box of my own floppy diskettes in a closet from my very earliest computers in my home about 10 years ago. I vaguely remember what was on them, mostly just old photos and writing projects and archived emails from the 90s. But they were interesting visually and cool. I remember at the time thinking they were important enough to be saved. However, I hadn’t used them for such a long time that the data was probably irrelevant to me now, while still remaining personal. I just didn’t want to throw them away, but I probably would never use them. They were like little time capsules from moments in my life.

And for someone who appreciates obsolete technologies, I saw them as these beautiful, flat and colorful pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, and, when arranged together in just such a way, I could quickly see they would make an excellent and intriguing painting surface. With the data forever sealed and locked inside, this lends another dimension to each artwork and makes it forever unique and personal. So, I began laying them out in almost like a puzzle and then it occurred to me that the 25 or 30 disks I had were not nearly enough. So, for the past 10 years I have been purchasing disks by the thousands from recycling companies, online auctions, and accepting donations of disks from people who want their own bits of technology turned into art. I don’t read the data on the disks and I do not erase anything. So, all of the thousands of pieces of past lives are locked inside the artwork. And it becomes an exponentially more beautiful thing. A more nuanced and layered thing.

To me, the most interesting aspect of these discarded vintage diskettes, are the handwritten or typed labels which refer back to unknown lives and projects that were essential to someone 20 or 30 years ago or more. By creating new artworks with these pieces of old technology, their efforts and work from so long ago live on in repurpose.

Using discarded technology as my painting surface, I really feel that these works explore identity, personal privacy, and collective history. The artworks end up being more than just the imagery painted on the surface. Within each painting, the viewer is also taken on a journey of discovery by exploring the details of each diskette. It is a collaboration between the artist and the anonymous creators of the data stored on these 30-year-old digital drives where, I think, the subject is as much the actual painting surface as it is the image painted upon it. With the data forever sealed and locked inside, this lends another dimension to each artwork that makes it forever unique and personal. Today, we go to such great lengths to create a digital identity for ourselves (in addition to the actual lives we live), I’m certain these small virtually obsolete mini warehouses of information will become more and more historically significant. All of these online records are only growing in importance and will outlive us all. I feel good making this a part of my art.

Your Text-Based Word Paintings series explores the idea of merging words and painting, as well as recycling existing art in a way by adding something new – words and quotes – to the canvas. How does the visual aesthetic of words impact the form of the existing painting? Elaborate.

I think it changes everything. Like in many of my other series or works, it makes things more complex and layered. It makes the viewer think in a completely different way about the meaning of the piece.

Phrases seem strongest when the source and meaning of the word or words is not entirely clear. Sometimes unclear phrases or random words and sayings are the most pure because they have nothing to do with you specifically, but they seem vaguely familiar. I take words and phrases from my own memory, from the pharmaceutical ads that bombard us, or from vintage newspaper advertisement clippings. I often find the words floating in my mind, as I move through my day. A lot of these things come from the noise of everyday life. And, of course, there is the absurdity and dark humor of it all. I like paintings that make you think and I like paintings that make you feel inside like you are on the verge of a smile.

If you had to decide on one last project you could do as an artist, what would it be and where would you like to do it?

I have always wanted to create a film and a series of paintings as a single project that collectively speak to memory and loss. It is a very personal passion of mine and I would love for this to be shown in a museum. And I would be drinking wine. And it would be in Europe. And I would speak the language fluently. Here is a short silent film I created from a montage of my family's historic 8mm home movies. One day, I would like to undertake an ambitious film from vintage family films about memory and create a series of paintings to speak to that.

What would you like to achieve as an artist?

I just hope to make a difference. To help people see things and consider things that they otherwise would not. But more so, I would hope that people will see the message behind what I do and value that. And that one day in the future, when I am not physically able to continue creating art, that people will look at the things I made and it will bring them pleasure in whatever way is meaningful to them, whether it be visual or intellectual or something else.

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