American Artist Philip Taaffe Nods to Destruction in Syria at Luhring Augustine Bushwick

He was inspired by his visit to Aleppo years ago.

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Philip Taaffe Imaginary Fountain 2014. Photo: Luhring Augustine
Philip Taaffe Nocturne with Architectural Fragments 2014. Photo: Luhring Augustine
Philip Taaffe Spiral Painting II 2015. Photo: Luhring Augustine
Philip Taaffe Choir 2014. Photo: Luhring Augustine
Philip Taaffe Glyphic Field 2014. Photo: Luhring Augustine
Philip Taaffe Installation view January 17-April 26 2015, Luhring Augustine Bushwick. Photo: Farzad Owrang

What do 12th century English monasteries, Mayan symbols, and the ancient city of Aleppo have in common? They each provide inspiration for five new dramatically-scaled paintings by Philip Taaffe. His exhibition at Luhring Augustine’s Bushwick Gallery explores loss of cultural heritage and offers a keen take on the recent destruction of historic sites around Syria.

With his silkscreens, staining, and collage, Taaffe appropriates ancient symbols and motifs to situate historical narratives within his grand canvases. One inspired work on view, Nocturne with Architectural Fragments, is dedicated to the people of Aleppo, Syria. In Aleppo, the ongoing civil war has ravaged medieval buildings, the Great Mosque, and the Al Madina Souq, the world’s most expansive ancient covered market (see US Museums Organize Aid for Syrian Sites). Having visited the city years back, Taaffe sympathized with the ruining of valuable cultural patrimony in and around the 4000-year-old city (see 2014 Saw Horrific Damage to Syria’s Cultural Heritage).

The eclectic selection of motifs in his canvases reflects his penchant for multiculturalism—Taaffe runs the gamut from Navajo motifs to the European Fleur-de-lis, and from Arabesque sinuous lines to Alhambra-inspired etchings. In his Imaginary Fountain, Taaffe borrows details from 11th and 12th century English monasteries. His assortment of stone-wall panels reflect the beginnings of Gothic architecture, while some display a Moresque foliage scheme.

A flurry of overlapping and dizzying spirals fill the picture plane in Taaffe’s Spiral Painting II. An aesthetic often tied to early childhood, the coiling shapes are aggressively symmetrical. During a recent interview, the artist explained that in ancient Mayan culture, spirals were a symbol for the eye, a vector for observation and remembrance—an important creative thread for Taaffe.

In Glyphic Field, Taaffe has appropriated a set of personal hieroglyphics reminiscent of Matisse’s cut outs (the artist also wrote an essay on Matisse). On this canvas, different figures, birds, fish and angels, cohabit a pastel and neon-colored utopia. There is a freedom to this work, and for all of its chaos, it is surprisingly calming.

Philip Taaffe at Luhring Augustine Bushwick opened January 17 and ends April 26. For visiting hours, check here.

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