Princeton Architectural Press, 2012
Reviewed by Andrew C. Gottlieb
There’s something comforting about the ability of an artist to focus solely on one object, and then to work to render that object over time in as many ways as necessary, perhaps until the need to render that object dissolves, whether that brings to the artist relief or depression. In Stephen Taylor’s new book, Oak: One Tree, Three Years, Fifty Paintings, an art book of 112 pages, plates and text, we have the privilege of peering into the world of a British artist who’s done just that.
Oak is a look at Stephen Taylor’s life over the course of about three years as he painted—in varying weathers, distances, lights, times of day—one oak tree. Thus, this book isn’t about trees, per se, nor paintings of trees, nor is it about oaks, in general. It is about Stephen Taylor’s methods—and the ways in which he studies color and uses technology are informative and interesting—it is about his painting, and it is also about his life history: all of this is the story of Stephen Taylor and his work. And it’s about one tree. But even more fascinating is that the book is really about Taylor’s ability to paint that one tree, over and over. And again.
Perhaps the most attractive quality of this book is simply that: insight into the meditative nature of Taylor’s work as an artist. Meditation, in the many traditions of Buddhism for which it plays a part, often recommends—to quiet the mind—closing one’s eyes and focusing on one imagined object. That object might be a candle flame, a spot of color, anything, really, that the practitioner chooses. Once past the freedom to choose an object, one quickly learns it’s remarkably difficult to prevent the mind from straying.
Outside a practice of meditation, one need not be reminded how difficult it is in today’s society to focus on anything, let alone the artistic recreation of one physical object. Writers and artists throw up their hands trying to find time to make art amid the needs of a job, a family, a life. Technology distracts; prescriptions—Ritalin—abound.
Focus like this is a rarity. Even for poets like Denise Levertov, who had an object like Mount Rainier as a talisman, the poems aren’t all about Rainier. How did Stephen Taylor get to a place where he could hike out into the same field for three years to look at and paint one oak tree? There are philosophies of art and objects that aren’t concerned with the backstory. Objects for object’s sake, authorial irrelevance. It’s possible to view, judge, and value these paintings of an oak tree by themselves, in a vacuum. If we do this, we lose the richness of Taylor’s life and work, the lesson of this artist. His story makes him human, and in the 20-page introduction, Taylor provides, succinctly though descriptively, a short history of his life up to The Tree. The critical point: in his late thirties, both his mother and a women he loved died of a brain tumor, the same disease. Shortly after, his father had a stroke and died.
There is grief here, but not sentimentality. Taylor tells us, “I found myself sitting in my childhood home, not quite knowing where I was.” This is about as emotional as Taylor gets. He keeps us linked to the art. “I grew up surrounded by oak trees,” he begins. He takes us through his university studies, early portraits, still lives. Then, following the tragic deaths he’d experienced, an invitation from friends to come and live on a farm in North Essex. Taylor spends the next seven years on this farm.
The plates are gorgeous and the text informative. Some of the work is impressionistic and some realistic, almost like a photograph. I read Oak in one sitting of several hours and spent some of the time showing various plates to my wife—who thought some photographs. The plates alone are vivid, often visibly textured, and enjoyable. The variation in lights and weathers provides a spectacular range of work about this one tree. I found myself flipping pages to compare. One of Taylor’s first realizations was that differences forced him to consider similarities: “I had not expected to see that, when placed next to each other, each oak study would look so distinct that they appeared to be different trees. They made me think about the ways in which there were the same tree.” (Italics his.)
There is science here. Taylor explains crop rotations in the field, soil nutrients, how oak trees replace limbs and prioritize leaf growth. He talks about the technology of his work, how he uses software to deconstruct elements of a photo to understand color variation, how he sees yellows across a plane, greens in a night sky, reds in a dusky blue sky. And he talks about his goals and aims, the more ineffable but crucial parts of any the artist’s drive. “I wanted to make an oak tree that felt both observed and imagined: an emblem embedded in vision.”
The book concludes with a 10-page instructional section. Putting this at the end of the book is a great choice, preventing the book from feeling didactic, and yet offering details on the process to educate the reader, making this more than a pretty coffee table book. Taylor, who teaches, explains about the use of a pochade box and how he approached learning how to paint swallows.
There is one thing I want to improve about this book and that’s its size. I want it larger. Almost a perfect square, about 11 inches to a side, Oak has content to justify a book twice its size. A glossy wrap, large plates. It feels too small now for its content. I want this to be a giant, a book that guests can slowly flip through, admiring the work, taking in the text.
The overarching fascination of the book and work is Taylor’s ability to paint one tree for three years. It’s similar to the focus of the late Roman Opalka’s mission to paint all the numbers, one by one, white on white, from 1 to infinity. One can only call this kind of focus admirable, refreshing, relieving, and for an artist, desirable, when considering the speed and chaos of the world’s information.
Taylor’s in-flight crows and swallows appear alive. One learns to see the red in Taylor’s blue skies. One becomes familiar with one North Essex oak tree, and one asks oneself, Could I focus this much, on one thing? Taylor shows us that in art, as in life, mantra as material can be exceptionally rewarding.
Andrew C. Gottlieb is the Reviews Editor for Terrain.org. His work can be found online, in many print journals, and in his poetry chapbook, Halflives, (New Michigan Press.) Find him at www.andrewcgottlieb.com.