John Taylor
Garde Rail Gallery, 4860 Rainier Ave S, 721-0107.
Through July 27.

Obsession is one of art's great topics, and most good artists, whatever their genre, are obsessed in some manner--by an idea, a material, a set of limitations. John Taylor's obsession is harder to pin down, but it is so manifest as to be a bit cowing; he makes historically accurate boats out of found objects, and these boats--which parade around the gallery, a flotilla of compulsively detailed vessels that seem to have been dredged from the sea--have a presence that simply shuts you up. There is some art that makes you want to talk. Taylor's art does not.

Much of the pleasure is in the assemblage of junk that has artfully been transformed. These are not the mediocre found-art collages you see in every gallery in the world. You can often tell what the parts once were, but not always (and my lack of nautical vocabulary prevents the kind of precise identification that this work deserves): the .45 caliber shell casings mounted on a top deck, the green shutter re-formed into a ship's hull, the postage-stamp flags, the copper bent around a bow. There is a feeling of inevitability to them, as if the end-point for these scraps of this and that couldn't have been anything else; as if their functional pre-art lives were only a preamble to this final use. Taylor, who builds the models after real ships and researches their history, has a fine sense of proportion, not just in that he's scrupulous about it, but he also includes details that telescope you right down into miniature-land (a tiny mesh railing reminds you just how small a human standing on a boat deck would be, and feel).

I've seen and admired Taylor's work before, but there's a different feeling to this show, and part of that comes from a greater articulation on the part of the artist. His descriptions of each boat now include not just the vessel's history, but also a sense of the artist's tie with it, with words and phrases that might have occurred to him during its construction, or little riffs about preserving materials instead of transforming them. It seems that there's a new kind of self-questioning going on, and perhaps this is what led to the best piece in the show--a tiny Noah's ark.

The word that occurred to Taylor while he built the ark was "broken," and this is simply beautiful; the idea of the world contained by the ark isolated from the rest of the world, furthermore as a piece of art broken off from the rest of Taylor's more rigidly historic oeuvre. The word contains the boat, and the boat contains the word. It's the simplest boat in the show, in terms of shape and materials: a blocky barn-looking structure made of thousands of square sticks, with tiny hole-windows and a door that leverages down, as on a castle. You can only barely see inside, into narrow passages lit by white Christmas lights and inhabited by a miniature animal or two. As with a number of his other boats, Taylor has built some mystery into the model, with interiors that are not available to the viewer, that exist only for the boats themselves; it's not a big jump, with the ark, to see this as a biblical mystification-- things seen only by the creator--something not lessened because an object of legend (or myth, if that's the way you see it) has been reified. It's as if Taylor has built the limits of knowledge right into his work.

The other ships are not as obviously evocative (except perhaps the Lusitania, that potent old symbol), but their presence alone is a kind of regenerative act. The Alisa B. Craig, for example, is a boat Taylor found an image of on eBay, but was unable to discover any other history about, so that its re-creation feels more powerful than just artsy. And it is partly this collapse of time that makes these works at the same time tireless and grand, specific and abstract. This is the shutting-up part: the result of the obsession is a kind of sanctification.