You don’t so much enter Henry Taylor’s new exhibition, at the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia, as get caught up in it, like flotsam or jetsam, drawn into the currents and eddies that seem to wind between the series of sculptures by the artist maybe best known for painting. The long, deep room that makes up the museum’s second floor is filled with what might be ships or boats and maybe islands, while along the long walls canvases that stretch for 30 feet are painted like horizons. And nearly everything is made of trash—or, if not exactly trash, then what’s termed “repurposed construction materials,” the stuff that’s involved with both building and demolishing cities, beginnings and ends. Even the elevator, if you look back, has been repainted to resemble the door of a mosque, making your entrance a Moorish departure, or even a pun on finding yourself un-moored, as you float into Taylor’s space, a place painted and sculpted from what has been rejected or overlooked.
The exhibit, entitled “Nothing Change, Nothing Strange,” is the end result of an 18-month collaboration between Taylor and the Fabric Workshop, along with Philadelphia’s Recycled Artist in Residency (or RAIR), a program based at a construction and demolition recycling center on the shore of the Delaware River in Northeast Philadelphia. The Fabric Workshop, if you haven’t been, is a place where artists are invited to experiment, and it should be noted that, despite what the name might imply, artists aren’t required to work with fabric. Fabric was encouraged when the museum opened, in 1977, and while some artists over the years have embraced it (in 1991, Louise Bourgeois displayed a scarf as well as a wooden ball and iron chain), others have stayed away from textiles (the Rose B. Simpson show that is currently upstairs looks at the way homes are shaped and sculpted like clay). When Taylor began his residency, in 2021, he started out thinking about fabric, though in the end the giant loom that greets the visitor on entering is less like a loom and more like the discarded hulk of a ship, announcing a theme—i.e., warp and weft, the essential process through which fiber is transformed into fabric. In “Nothing Change, Nothing Strange,” the strands are migrations and passageways, unforced and forced, and the various ways that viewers, as they weave through the space itself, experience these ideas.
Yet the show is also palpably enticing. Experiencing it, you have the feeling that Taylor himself has just stepped out of the room for a minute, still working and returning shortly, having handed you the tools. Look, there in the construction that is at the center of the room—a ship, or so it seems, has been assembled with lumber and artificial turf, with a cache of old plastic tree planters wired up like the bridge, three shrouded figures watching like specters. On the edge of the gunwale, a hammer sits on broken-up marble, a former countertop or maybe the transported ruins of a bathroom, a broken-up home. Are we building or destroying? And who’s in charge?