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Inside Out


In the bloody tradition of the conquistadors, I claim Curtis Taylor's The Shades of Parkland for visual arts, away from the theater world where some say he rightfully belongs.

Why quibble over categories? No reason, except that Taylor's dark cabarets, with their exquisite visual sensibilities, owe at least as much to performance art as they do to the old-time vaudeville shows that are their heritage. Like the tableaux vivants popular between the World Wars, they rely less on narrative movement than atmospheric machinery, a change in environment quite akin to installation art. The familiar variety-show form acts in service of an ineffable something, a transformative world view that the viewer may or may not be able to articulate, indeed may not even be aware of. These themes seem pulled from mid-air, intuitive, a surrealist way of understanding the world.

I first met Taylor, small and compact with close-cropped sandy hair and a serious and slightly baffled mien, in 1999 at CoCA's "They Shoot Painters, Don't They?" (a 24-hour public painting marathon). There in the gallery space--part debauchery, part sweatshop--Taylor quietly and patiently painted his serene landscapes with his back turned to the antic crowd, not surfacing even for the stir created when his neighbor began painting from two nude models. This kind of unobtrusive hard work is an intrinsic part of his persona, perhaps even his very self: publicity-shy, modest, deflecting credit for his achievements. When I needed a photograph of him for a Stranger bio box, he gave me an image I could only assume was him--wearing a mouse suit.

Taylor grew up in Denver and came to art through his father, who in the middle of his own life developed an abiding interest in Native American culture, especially dance. Taylor and his father and brothers traveled around and performed ceremonial dances--previously performed only by Native Americans--in schools, an activity he realizes would not be looked on as kindly now as it was in the pre-politically-correct '70s. "I learned from these dances that art isn't just entertainment," he told me. "It serves a function as well." Wisely, Taylor won't say directly what this function is, but rather talks around it, and once you get him started, his reticence falls away, and an intense eloquence pries open the very idea of art.

The elements of Shades range from the sincere to the campy. They include variations on the bel canto sung by mezzo-soprano Janna Wachter and soprano Shawna Avinger, music by members of the Black Cat Orchestra, and costumes by artist Eve Cohen (who designs the Rollvulvas' saucy outfits), with sets and overall design by Taylor himself. He cites a cartoonish metaphysics as the organizing principle for the work, based in part on Geoffrey Sonnabend's 1930's research on memory and the decay of experience over time. The Shades of Parkland, he said, "deals with opposites, shadows, shades--the relationship between the object that obscures the light and the shadow it creates."

If this seems maddeningly elusive, that's the point. Taylor described last year's Rome as a "splendor of machines, food, the state, sex/death." There was an exultant seediness to the proceedings, a kind of end-of-empire decadence that tolled like a bell through artist Friese Undine's monologue, The Fascist (a highbrow deliberation on the perfect party and other deeply held beliefs, delivered through an enormous gramophone horn to the accompaniment of clinking glasses and cocktail chatter); through Boyd Post's charming but slightly misguided Italian translation of "You're Just Too Good to Be True"; through a series of pedantic lectures given by a painted Greek frieze with moving mouths. The elements of Rome added up to a feeling, an inkling, a dedication to the ineffable. Taylor, like the surrealists, like the great Harry Smith--anthropologist, musicologist, filmmaker, writer--provides a sense of connectedness while urging you to project your own needs into the work. Smith, whom Taylor cites as an influence for Shades, could make anything he was interested in seem utterly relevant, from Ukrainian painted eggs to the language of the Lummi tribe to the folk music collected in the Anthology of American Folk Music, without predigesting it.

"Recently I read a great definition of art," Taylor told me. "It said that art is a way to interact with instability. The benefit of encountering mystery is that you form a relationship with instability. There's no satisfaction in being clinical."