Born Brooklyn, New York, 1947 / BS, Wayne State University; MFA, Cranbrook Academy of Art/ Lives in Pleasant Ridge, MI
In all its darkness, playfulness, mystery and grotesquerie, the work of Susan Aaron-Taylor embodies a search for wholeness through the embrace of contradictions and dichotomies. Over the last five decades, she has explored dualities through bodies of work that mine the realms of dreams and alchemy, sources that also served the fifteenth-century artist Hieronymus Bosch in his famous Garden of Earthly Delights. Both draw on these and other symbolic systems to produce a spiritual cosmogony both terrifying and compelling, imaginative and surreal. But unlike Bosch’s painted allegory of humanity’s fall from grace, Aaron-Taylor’s mixed media sculptures, constructed of materials such as handmade felt, wood, shells, stones, bones, and beads, are more a search for grace. That search dives into the self and its myriad incongruities, a self which does not so much learn to travel from dark to light on its lifelong journey as to incorporate both in the cycle of existence.
Drawing on various transcendental practices and Jungian psychology, from Jung’s theory of archetypes and the collective unconscious to the world of shamanism, Aaron-Taylor’s work engages with the ineffable concept of duality as expressed within the individual, the self and the natural world, and spirit and matter. In Polarity (2006), for example, from her “Dreamscape” series, Aaron-Taylor juxtaposes two simple forms that echo one another in shape. One is hard white natural stone while the other is covered by soft dark handmade felt with a visible seam. They sit on a red felt pad, like a pool of energy evocative of blood, and convey in their solemn pairing the unity and division within the psyche or between the inner and outer world, with the need for protection from the latter conveyed by the tightly-drawn felt covering, like a second skin. In the “Soul Shard” series, Soul Shard #18 (2004), made of bark, tree pods, and encaustic, two tall slender forms confront each other more directly, each smooth on the outside while burly and prickly on the inside, yet soaring upward together in curving harmony. Fittingly, her work has appeared on the cover of Jung Magazine.
Using dream symbolism that is sometimes poignant, sometimes humorous, Aaron-Taylor often conveys complex emotional states through animals. In Water Rat (2011), from the “Dream Game” series, a rodent-like creature throws up its arms, lifts its tail, and even seems to point its teats, in gestures of supplication, complaint, or frustration, like an overtaxed mother.
Aaron-Taylor’s most recent body of work, “Journeying,” followed the death of her own mother. Using handmade felt to create two-dimensional altar cloths behind three-dimensional altars, they serve as visual elegies to death, departure, and transformation. In Threshold #3 (2016), the sculptural objects on the altar are reproduced in a kind of transcendent space on the vertically hung altar cloth, evoking an uncanny sense of real versus unreal, material versus immaterial. The felt altar cloth pulls us simultaneously into interior and exterior space while the work as a whole suggests both visible and invisible worlds.
For the same series, Aaron-Taylor produced the semi-reclining wolf-like figure Guide (2015), a title that evokes the animal spirit guides of shamanism. In shamanism, the world’s oldest healing tradition, animal spirit guides or totems can deliver messages, help with a difficult transition, accompany you on your life’s journey while reminding you of your strengths, or represent your inner fears. Thus they can help, protect, educate, heal, and inspire. Both ferocious and supplicating, Guide’s interior seems exposed on its exterior in another pose of supplication, this time with its heart visible, transparently willing to take on all slings and arrows in the service of its mission.
Aaron-Taylor also uses animals in playfully metaphorical ways. Her “Teapot” series, for example, embodies some of her most lyrical works, including the elegant Tiger Teapot (2013) and the astonishing Starling Teapot (2014). Both vessels retain the requisite hollow chambers along with spouts, handles, and removable lids, but they are more suited to serving tea in a magical wonderland than in your kitchen, offering the unadulterated joy of children’s fantasy tea parties via connection to a strange and beautiful natural world.
Dora Apel, August 2017
Copyright Essay’d 2017