Gary Taxali: Reviver of Dreams
By Steven Heller
Gary Taxali is a reviver of dreams. Not everyone’s dreams exactly, but some of my own can be found nicely nestled in his drawings and toys. Taxali’s work recalls a comic past when goofy and bulbous comic strip characters roamed the pages of newspapers and comic books. He resurrects the somewhat innocent visages of Sluggo-ish-dopplegangers in a manner that once was called “Pop Art” and now is termed retro, but I think of as homage transformed.
In a media age, so saturated with images we have what Tom Wolfe once referred to as a “big closet” comprised of countless visual raw material. Deciding on one as a possible channel for individual passion can be difficult. There is so much choice and so little bandwidth for artistic investigation.
Taxali chose wisely. He cornered the market, so to speak, on his brand of retro-recollection. His most important influences, he told me, when I forced him to pick only three, are typography, film and banal, undersigned textbooks and manuals. “I stop and stare at typefaces and letterforms all the time,” he explained. “I use it in my work all the time and it’s an important part of helping me say the things I want to see in my pictures.” Now, that’s an interesting turn of a phrase, and fitting since Taxali’s work is about saying and seeing.
“Film is huge for me,” he continued “The lighting, the composition, the escape into wonderful stories by brilliant filmmakers (eg. Jarmusch, Polanski, Kurasawa, Hitchcock, Leigh) are a big influence on my work. It can be subtle like a great, framed shot that sparks an idea as well as bigger, deeper concepts about humanity and so forth.” Indeed all his work appears to be in motion. So it is odd that he’s never done animation. Perhaps the day will come.
“I really like discarded things,” he added. “Stuff that was never supposed to be interesting or important fascinates me. A lot of illustration and design falls into this category. Instead of emulating these things on a conscious level, I try to turn myself on and off. That is, the idea of marrying a tight, graphic, conceived character or object with a random, stream-of-conscious doodle or scribble, fascinates me. Often old textbooks have secrets in the form of small doodles and scrawls that the author (likely not an artist) made out of boredom. I think these can be absolutely beautiful.” And beauty, Taxali-style, is exactly what emerges from the critical mass or stream-of-consciousness that defines his work, and the characters therein.
Taxali revels in designing characters. But these are not entirely out of the blue. “I think about a mood, attitude, feeling and state of mind and I go from there,” he explained about how he makes a character submit to a particular condition or situation. “Of course, the character is often times empowered and in control of the situation,” he added.
“Sometimes I think of a sentence or a phrase and let the character come to life from there,” he said about the frequent inclusion of words, phrases and even numbers in his work.
Taxali started as a two-dimensional illustrator, these days he is avidly engaged in the third. His entrepreneurial toys have become the logical extension of his expression. He grew up with a generic version of something that resembled his creation, “Trapeze Monkey,” a gymnastic simian on a stick. “But I didn’t like him, to be honest,” he recounted, “that’s likely why he’s my favorite toy in the set as I wanted to redesign him my whole life!
Taxali’s world is made of engagingly touching juxtapositions of characters as diverse as mice-people, bitchy ducklings, rabbit men, walking houses and fez-wearing simians. I found man in his 2009 exhibition at the Jonathan LeVine Gallery in New York titled Hindi Love Song. Although I couldn’t find the Hindi (maybe I wasn’t looking in the right place), I realized the love song was totally integrated into his works on paper, metal, plywood, bronze and other lovingly prepared surfaces. His keen ability to make each material speak is his most decisive accomplishment.
Much art-historical rationalizing could be deployed to explain why Taxali uses a comic language .. but why not just sit back and enjoy the dreams?
(taken from “Mono Taxali”, published by 27_9).
Steven Heller is the co-chair of the MFA Design Program at the School of Visual Arts, New York and author of over 135 books on design and illustration.