Michael E. Taylor’s abstract glass works draw us into the invisible realms of subatomic physics and computer code.
Glass has been used since as early as ancient Egypt, and its fascination is evinced by the material’s central position in our holiest of places, in the form of stained glass. The translucence of stained glass appears to have been both a practical choice (people enjoy seeing) and a clear means of expressing the nature of the spiritual mysteries that permeated the lives of worshippers and the world around them like so much light. Novelist and art theorist André Malraux wrote in his critical manifesto, Voices of Silence: “Stained glass is not indifferent to the changes of light which, when our churches were thronged with worshippers at successive hours, endowed it with a vitality unknown to any other art form…. Stained glass has an immediate appeal to us, by reason of its emotivity, so much akin to ours, and its impassioned crystallization.” Despite this lofty exaltation of stained glass as medium, an artist who deals with glass in the context of sculpture could either take the ineffable quality of the material as self-evident or make it the very core of their work and practice. Artist Michael E. Taylor has chosen the latter.
Rather than simply being objects filling an inert space, Taylor’s forms, much like a sacred pane of stained glass, give a material presence to what is unseen but always there. His geometrical forms seem to grow in space, recalling Malraux’s “impassioned crystallization”; they are time-lapse crystals in a state of becoming. The transparency of Taylor’s work invites the viewer to consider its place in space and to question what exactly that space is and what fills it, beyond the sculpture being viewed. Non-transparent sculpture may negate or work within a space, but with a definite beginning and end to its form. Glass sculpture, on the other hand, harnesses light and allows us to see form without obliterating the space it inhabits. The result is a shaping of light and space, as if a trowel could scrape and pull the air into pure form.
The experience of looking at Taylor’s 2015 laminated optical and pigmented glass sculpture, Positron, is akin to putting on a pair of special goggles that allow the viewer to see physics in action. There is a powerful illusion of motion in the work that is conveyed by a series of transparent three-dimensional rectangles that move further clockwise along the same axis with each successive repetition of the form. The result is a freeze-frame of motion that evokes the most fundamental subatomic phenomena or a string of DNA under construction. The very nature of the work brings to mind spirit photography from the turn of the 20th century—faked images that purported to provide evidence for the belief in life after death.
Both the hoax of spirit photography and Taylor’s work give form to a belief. In Taylor’s case it is the belief that our world is governed by an immutable set of scientific laws that correlate with physical realities. Positron (an antimatter particle) however, differs from a spiritualist’s photograph, in that the reality of what it “believes”—that we exist in a world of matter and particles governed by invisible laws that, as we continue to learn more, cannot be perceived by the naked eye—also makes its existence possible.
In an exhibition currently on view at the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Wash., titled “Michael E. Taylor—Traversing Parallels” (through May 12), the artist’s artistic and technical innovations are on full display. Taylor’s career as an artist and educator spans 50 years, and his experimentation and mastery of glass (particularly his pioneering work with cut and laminated glass) have enabled him to ask pressing contemporary questions about our rapidly changing world. The world Taylor sees is framed and understood through science and abstraction. His geometrically surprising forms present the beauty and uncertainty of the human perspective quickly dissolving into a collection of data and unseen algorithms and laws. His 2014 laminated optical and pigmented glass sculpture, Rocketeer, seems to beg the viewer to be understood on its own terms. There is a life to the work, which is made up of a collection of blue half-circles surrounding a large diamond-shaped base. The physical laws of the work are strange and unexpected, yet there is a character, a personality to it that, while not human, still communicates with the viewer. Rocketeer stands like a wild creature in a post-human age, a peacock-like abstraction that is unfamiliar but friendly.
The 2014 sculpture Artificial Intelligence Code, made from optical, borosilicate, and other laminated glasses, gives a physical form to something that is regarded as ostensibly non-physical—computer code. The collection of colored glass makes a pretense of clear organization, but this organization is indecipherable to the viewer. The sculpture evokes the clean design of a consumer product, but it is nonetheless “useless” for any practical purpose. It is inhuman, holding within itself its own logic. Contemporary philosophy is reckoning with this hyper alienation from “thinking machines” and a growing world of objects. Object-oriented ontology is a school of contemporary philosophy that does not privilege the human place in the order of things. It is a rejection of what it regards as anthropocentrism, and instead sees the world as a place filled with people and objects which share the same level of reality outside of our perception of them.
With Artificial Intelligence Code, and much of the rest of his work, Taylor takes a step toward giving form to this post-human reckoning with the world. His creations seem to move and think, but maybe most importantly, simply to be. The rules of their existence are beyond the comprehension of our naked eye and, more and more, beyond the grasp of our intellectual conceptions of reality. Now, in much the same way that stained glass gave form to the mysteries of the spirit, Taylor’s work gives form to the mysteries of being in a world that refuses to fit into a human-shaped box.
By Chris Shields