Sunday, April 13, 2014

A Peculiar Alchemy: The Art of Norman and Tory Taber

Imagine, if you will: there is a little girl leaning upon the railing of a steamer headed to Hong Kong. She gazes lazily across the glassy dark sea, deep into the horizon a million miles away, her mind dipping and keeling like the slapping tail of a turquoise-scaled mermaid diving into the foaming trail cast off the prow. She smiles to herself and hugs her doll, a doe-eyed French bebe dressed in lush velvet and fur that answers to the name Phoebe at tea parties. Her father told her of all the wonderful things in China, the dragons, the pretty ladies with the long black hair, the embroidered silks and porcelain foo dogs. What an adventure! So many wonderful things to see and collect, to bring home with me!

Phoebe sits among the treasures in the old steamer trunk
Victorians were the quintessential explorers and collectors of the curious, the exotic, and the absurd. So rabid was their desire to catch and cage, many species of rare and beautiful creatures perished in their dainty pale hands. And yet, we forgive them, for they filled our trunks, museums and cabinets with all sorts of weird and wonderful things to study, to paint, to ponder. We can't help but feel the electrical excitement at sorting through all the peculiar things in boxes, pinned to tables, arranged in cabinets under glass. All those forbidden things great-grandfather and his daughter collected on their travels throughout the world and brought back in an old steamer trunk, now up in the attic of an old house. We know it was wrong to keep souvenirs like that, but still...
"Vitatta Linne", Norman Taber
 Norman and Tory Taber are a married duo who often work together, collaborating on such projects as the children's book "Rufus at Work", a funny and sweet depiction of a day in the life of a fat, lazy cat. Meanwhile, both of these illustrators have busied themselves teaching at SUNY Plattsburgh and raising two daughters in the state of New York. Seems pretty vanilla until you peak under the hood...
"Hazel and Ivy", Tory Taber
Let's first talk about Tory. Preferring to work with acrylics, Tory's focus is on the child hero/heroine of the What You May fairytale. Her palette is soft, often pastel in hue. Her children have rather large noggins, reminiscent of the illustrator Nicoletta Ceccoli. Is Tory a knockoff of the Big Head Illustrators (a la Mark Ryden)? A latecomer? Well, a neophyte of contemporary art might think so, but more than one viewer of Tory's work has noted that there is something slightly disturbing with her subjects, something a little bit off. The children are, well, sensual. There's a spark of life behind those big eyes, and something is ticking. Their lips are just a little too full, their gaze a little too piercing, and despite clearly being those of Innocence, these kids are also clearly calling the shots. Like the little children of old folklore, they have a sense of wit about them. Clever, clever Gretel...
"Just One Bite", Tory Taber
"Who's That Nibbling?", Tory Taber
Tory also loves the world of fairies, but you'll notice most of them are war-torn, tired, and angrier than a hormonal teenage girl. Nearly all are captured, tagged, measured, and filed away under glass or in boxes for further analysis. Can they be tamed, studied, or dissected? It's clearly up to the viewer to decide. In the meantime, Ms. Taber will rally on, in the name of natural science, of course.
"Blackthorn, Prunus Spinosa: Adjusting Nicely", Tory Taber
Norman Taber worked independently of his wife when creating the body of work for this show, but clearly both are of a hive mind. Norman's antiqued photographs are of curious objects in boxes, tagged and organized. Here is an egg, there is a little crumpled fairy, possibly one of Lady Cottington's creatures, carefully filed away in a drawer at the Natural History Museum in London. Norman is simply recording what he sees.
"Natural History Specimen", Norman Taber
Other photographs feature Victorian children casually holding bell jars, a new prize Father brought back from his travels in Brittany for his little daughter. The girl happily holds her new prize, as the terrified captive begs for freedom. Another child stomps about a large old tree, clearly missing the tiny Fae door at its roots. The digital prints feel nostalgic, discarded and found again, maybe at an antique shop or deep in grandmother's old steamer trunk.
"Specimen", Norman Taber
Norman has a passion for the old, the broken, the bits and pieces of life left behind as we all steamroll into the future. His assemblages are shadow boxes made of old spindles and bits of wood from what seems like the walls of old homes, fragments of old wallpaper still stuck to the surfaces. Some of the boxes house a sort of Victorian pachinko, in which old marbles can be dropped down one end, and sent through the assemblage like a Mad Mouse ride, ringing bells and swinging levers in the shape of the moon before it pops out the other side of the box and clatters to the ground. Most of the pieces have marbles fixed in precarious positions in a state of potential kinetics. There's movement, or the potential of movement, in these pieces, and yet they are peacefully static.
"#2: I am marble-constant; now the fleeting moon", Norman Taber
Both Norman and Tory work very differently from each other in medium and style, but the overall feel of the show has a strong consistency in content and feel. There is a true alchemy going on with their work, a feeling of discovery, evidence of magic in nature, and a need to label, study, and preserve in the name of science. Despite the children's book feel of the work, it seeks to speak to the adult viewer, reminding us of what it was like to be children: discovering the world around us and seeking to master it with curiosity, imagination and wit. Their work says to us: What an adventure!
~Julie Baroh, April 2014

Norman and Tory's show will be up to view at Krab Jab Studio through May 2nd, 2014.