There’s always been a magical, mystical aspect to the work of artist Kara Taylor. Even in her landscapes — the moody, evocative scenes that Taylor is perhaps best known for — there is a sense that spirits lie hidden just beyond the viewer’s eye, casting a spell over the scene. Now, with her most recent series, Taylor has seemingly lifted the curtain to offer a glimpse of the spirits who — previously unseen — have fired her imagination and given such a vividly dreamlike quality to her work.
The collection of photo collages, “Guardians of Us,” currently featured at the Kara Taylor Gallery in Chilmark, takes a dramatic look at the human form imbued with mystery and symbolism. Figures draped in billowy fluid garments are seen partially obscured by colorful masks and shields — a prominent part of their attire. The photographic images have been superimposed, in many cases, against encaustic on wood panel backdrops, with bits of antique lace sometimes added as a final touch, framing the image.
To call the work powerful would be an understatement. These demigods take center stage, no longer a force behind the scenes but the embodiment of a strong, yet benevolent spirit that guides and oversees the complex dreamworld that Taylor has created.
“I look at these figures as entities, guardians,” says the artist, who splits her time between the Vineyard and her second home in South Africa. “They give you protection. You can just surrender to them.”
Taylor gets emotional when she speaks about her recent work. “I did this body of work not thinking about my audience,” she says. “I did this for me. It comes from a really deep place in my heart.”
In the artist statement for the series, Taylor expounds on the theme, writing, “‘Guardians of Us’ explores a perennial philosophy about the nature of being that borders myth and the relative world. Where the literal and the illusory collaborate; where fact and fiction are blurred lines in the sand.”
She goes on to explain, “Here, guardians personify the nature of instinct, desire, metamorphosis, and clairvoyance. Some are peaceful and some are wrathful. They cross-reference animal to human, a hybrid representing the sacred feminine and the double-edge sword between courage and vulnerability; what may appear a state of weakness in actuality is a state of power and transcendence. Wisdom, ritual, and the sacred are relative to perception, and are such described as experiential.”
Taylor first spent a winter in South Africa in 2016, and she has returned every year since. She has a studio in Cape Town, and shows her work regularly in the South African capital city. Her time spent in a country she describes as “a place where beauty and tragedy are intertwined” has had a profound effect on her work in a number of ways. A few years back she started integrating traditional African fabrics into her multimedia pieces, along with bits of antique lace. “I identify with my European heritage by gilding family heirlooms of vintage lace,” she says. “merging various African patterns as a cultural hybrid and a sensitivity to cultural appropriation.”
Along with the addition of the colorful fabrics, Taylor was also inspired by her move to South Africa to dive more deeply into themes surrounding social and racial injustice — issues that have concerned her for years. Still, Taylor’s work would not be considered political in nature — more humanitarian, and universal — the themes crossing boundaries of many cultures and philosophies.
As she writes in her artist’s statement, “This body of work recontextualizes philosophical thought and traditions referencing Tantric Buddhism, Hindu Vedanta, Theosophy, African Tribalism, Catholicism, Pagan Christianity, and Transcendentalism.”
Taylor recruited South African dancers for the work, their supple bodies and fluid motions adding further to the poetry of the pieces. The figures appear almost spirit-like, not bound to the earth, but fully integrated in nature and myth. The obscuring of the model’s faces and their semi-transparent garments serve to both conceal and reveal. “I didn’t want you to identify with a certain person,” says the artist. “I wanted to leave room for interpretation and a little bit of mystery.”
The series, she says, poses the question, “How much do we hide, and how much do we reveal about ourselves as people? Most of my work speaks about existential questions and what is our purpose.”
Taylor created the intricate sculptural pieces that adorn her models, using African fabrics and other materials to construct beautiful mandala-esque pieces that she refers to as talismans. “Talismans feel very ceremonial or sacred,” she says. “Like a part of my tribal self.” The artist is showing these pieces as individual wall hangings as an accompaniment to the work.
Taylor created the “Guardians of Us” series last winter and spring. While living and working in South Africa, she found herself exploring themes especially relevant to the world today. “Everything is so polarized right now,” she says. “I’m just wanting more connection and cultural integration.
“This is the first body of work where I didn’t concern myself with what my audience would think,” says Taylor. “These really came from another source within myself. They just burst out of me. Sometimes you don’t know what you’re doing while you’re doing it.”
“Guardians of Us” at the Kara Taylor Gallery, 24 South Road, Chilmark, open Thursday to Sunday, 11 am to 5 pm. Visit karataylorart.com for more information.