Beauty and the beastly: Taylor bites into humanity

Detail from Josephine Taylor's "Skinned and Flayed."

A friend once confided that while she was heating water she realized she could simply put her newborn in the pot and boil the baby. She was mortified, but the truth is everyone has dark thoughts. A primal self lurks within that is monstrous and unspeakably brutal, full of fear and the will to survive. That we keep it at bay is what defines our humanity.

Artist Josephine Taylor grapples with her dark imaginings by expressing them on the page, venting basic fears and impulses while controlling them with refined lines and delicate pigments, transforming them into something wondrous. Her stunning large works on paper currently hang at Second Street Gallery.

The 11 images in Taylors's "Bomb Landscape + Monster Face" belong to two bodies of work. The three nearly floor-to-ceiling drawings from Taylor's "Bomb Landscape" depict a post-apocalyptic world where humans have become primitive, competing with wild animals and living in makeshift dwellings crafted from fragments of the past. Taylor masterfully lets the page do much of the work by creating reverse silhouettes from the negative space, inking in black backgrounds with barely visible strokes that shift direction to heighten the tension in each image.

Using translucent colored inks, Taylor details facial expressions and sex organs in her nude human figures and emphasizes the eyes and mouths of her snarling Tasmanian Devil-like beasts. Though spare, Taylor's observation of these elements is meticulously realistic and provides contrast with the dynamic white strands of hair, eyelashes, and tips of fur.

In the diptych, "Bomb Landscape #5," four animals on the left face off against two men and a woman on the right. Wearing an empty-eyed pelt, one man clasps his hands in seeming supplication to the snapping beasts, while the woman lurches over him, her face contorted as she casts a net while being penetrated from behind by the second man, who looks fearfully upward–- his posture and expression exactly echoed by an animal on the left. The scene pulses with desperation and anxiety, yet Taylor's technique mesmerizes with its beauty.

In her "Monster Face" series, Taylor introduces more color to re-imagine benign family scenes and children's portraits as ghastly. She removes skin and distorts features, but her lines and colors are delicate and lovely despite the horrific content of her images.

Taylor's ability to render menacing visions with undeniable beauty is nothing short of breathtaking and speaks to the humanizing power of art.

Josephine Taylor's exhibition, "Bomb Landscape + Monster Face," is on view through February 26 at Second Street Gallery, 115 Second St. SE. 977-7284.