Henry Taylor’s “The Times Thay Ain’t a Changing, Fast Enough”, depicts the violent and tragic death of Philando Castillo. The title of the painting concisely reveals the artists position towards the current political climate and discrimination the African American community struggles through continuously. Taylor’s subject matter is very openly a statement for social justice but also appears to be a beautiful abstract narrative with balanced color and composition.
Before his appearance at the Whitney Biennial his paintings were classified as outsider art which pushes his work into the category of “naive” figurative paintings. It was also criticized as though it appeared to be created by a “self-taught” artist. This painting and his others are anything but that. His work is direct and potent, also it is a reflection of Taylor’s experience. The painting is a revealing perspective that casts the audience in Castillo’s fiancés seat as she watched her soon to be husband die. The simplified shapes and colors create a very direct composition.
If the subject matter doesn’t instantly grasp your attention the opaque colors are equally captivating. It’s hard to ignore the subject as a gleaming white eye unblinking stares into the gaze of the viewer. The white of the eye instantly pulls my attention to the white mass of the figure which contrasts heavily with the black headliner of the interior of the vehicle, Phillando’s last view. The black pigment instantly pulls me to the dark shirt of the police officer and then the murder weapon. The large swath of orange reads as a cautionary hue. The actual view through those windows might be blue considering the small patch of blue sky flashing only momentarily in the top middle portion of the composition. That little patch of blue symbolizes hope until it drags you down the seatbelt and over the body of Philando and back into the green interior of the car. The colors and shapes of the composition are masterfully placed by a skilled artist who intentionally guides the viewer through this scene. The placement of each value is done purposefully and causes an involuntary scanning that demands attention on key elements.
James Taylor has a unique ability to combine content and color in such a way that the image is clear from across the room. He uses large scale to produce a monumental vision of what he wishes to portray. This strategy is beneficial to his message of racial inequality. The way he transforms figures into big colorful shapes allows the image to fall into an abstract narrative and feels accessible to someone as naive as myself. When I saw this painting at the biennial I stood in front of it and was forced to contemplate my own life and my privileged existence. In this moment I realized how successful he was at portraying his message.