Less than 10 minutes into my visit to the newly renovated Rebekah Jacob Gallery, a large rectangular box arrives containing two works by Kevin Taylor. Jacob smiles and says, "You arrived just in time."
And indeed I did. There's something about seeing new artwork being unpacked for the first time — before it hangs on a gallery wall, basking in its high status as Art with a capital A. For a brief moment, these paintings exist in the same mundane world that encompasses cardboard, bubble wrap, and lots and lots of packing tape. This is the moment when a piece of art truly stands on its own merits, leaving itself vulnerable to your expectations. There's no telling whether it will live up to them or not.
In this case, I am floored. "Aren't they wonderful?" Jacob says, contemplating the paintings. Each portrays a tribal person, one of whom is completely covered in Spanish moss except for the eyes. These pieces, like the rest of Taylor's body of work, display the exquisite technique of a master artist applied to subjects that range from the familiar, yet slightly surreal, to the positively otherworldly. That combination, Jacob tells me, is one reason that clients continue to collect Taylor's work. "The quality is so consistent throughout all of his pieces," she says. Taylor's exhibit, called Primal Union, consists of a series of portraits as well as larger compositions. Although it's Taylor's first exhibition at the gallery, he has gained a strong following in Charleston that ranges from dedicated collectors purchasing major works to young artists picking up whatever they can afford.
Taylor's skill with oils is all the more impressive for his being largely self-taught. Although Taylor attended the Savannah College of Art and Design, it wasn't until his last semester that he took an Introduction to Painting course. At the same time, he took an art history class with an outstanding professor, and the combination of those two courses completely changed his path. "That was the first time I really understood why we make art ... and that was the last semester, so I graduated with all this knowledge in my head and this fire inside, and I had to discover painting my own way," Taylor says. "I've kept at it ever since."
After graduating from SCAD, Taylor returned to his native Charleston, where he worked in both visual art and music. As his career and recognition grew, he got the itch to change things up, to move to San Francisco and see what came of it. He's been living and painting there since 2006. "I decided to move here the week I turned 33, and it's been one of the best decisions I've ever made," he says.
That constant urge to push himself past what's comfortable has not only allowed him to develop greater technical skill, but also to tackle challenging subjects. Taylor's work focuses on the natural world, but with a sharp, unexpected twist. A piece might depict a great white shark suspended on poles or a human body with an animal-like head. He describes his way of presenting things as dream-like, where impossible or improbable things are depicted in a highly realistic manner. "They look so real that they might happen ... And who knows, really, what's possible? The future is a scary place." This might account for the slightly unsettling — in a very good way — nature of many of his paintings. And although he doesn't call himself an environmentalist, his art pushes the rest of us to consider questions and how we as people relate to the animals that we are becoming increasingly detached from.
Primal Union is a departure for Taylor, focusing as it does on humans rather than animals. However, the difference is merely on the surface; the paintings continue to explore Taylor's primary theme of our connection with the natural world. These pieces, he says, ask us to consider our increasingly elusive future. With climate change and pollution reaching a critical tipping point, it's clear that we're living in precarious times. If something were to happen that drastically changed the way we had to live — say, if we were left without electricity — it's obvious who would fare better. "We'd be looking to indigenous communities to teach us how to live. The power would shift, because we'd be dependent on those who could show us how to live off the land, and we should appreciate that sooner rather than later," he says. "That's what I'm getting at in the show."