For anyone with an appreciation of nature’s ways, driving around the neighborhood near Southgate Mall is like a waking nightmare. It’s not just the bald commercialism that offends the senses there, or the instant-oatmeal architecture. It’s the wholly unnatural flow of the place—the contrived nexus of streets and cul-de-sacs that are not just unorganized but completely lacking in anything that can be described as organic. Or instinctual. Or even logical. It is, when you think about it, the very antithesis of earthiness. Where the world of nature offers us the subtle passageways of dens, warrens, rivulets and streams, the world of man gives us Malfunction Junction.
Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that this is where Toni Matlock Taylor does her work. Behind a quonset hut and down a preternaturally steep cement ramp, Taylor has set up a studio, transforming an old basement into a place where the way of all things, both natural and un-, is brought to bear.
Over the past nine years, Taylor has focused her work as an artist on the traditional craft of felting—turning raw wool into fluffy tufts of felt—and applying it in ways that, to put it lightly, old-fashioned fabric-makers probably never thought of. You can see the clues to her skewed perspective all around you. On the floor sit plastic pails filled with ochre-colored water. Overhead, skeins of cloth hang from a wire. Sacks of potting soil slouch beneath a table. And an array of drill bits, hand tools, garden gear and old motor parts, all rusted far beyond any usefulness, litter the top of a wooden stand. They are all elements of the everyday world, although the way Taylor uses them, you’d only vaguely recognize them now.
“My objective is to expose the natural process,” Taylor says, as she handles a corroded tenpenny nail. “I don’t expect things not to continue to change. Everything starts to look the same, whether it’s growing or decaying. It all kind of merges.”
The heart of Taylor’s work, you see, lies in combining the natural with the studiously unnatural, the purely organic with the inorganic, and pitting them against each other. She takes ordinary objects that have been cast off from our industrial world—nails, saws, hammers, sickles, bedsprings, spades—and wraps them in her own homespun, fleecy-white felt. Then she exposes them to the elements that set them at each other. She sprays them with vinegar. She douses them with water. She dunks them alternately in hot and cold pails, to “shock,” she says, the felt into conforming to these odd, unnatural, even painful-looking shapes. And then she lets them sit. Soon, the metal begins to rust. The white turns russet. The metal and the felt imperceptibly begin to meld. To the casual eye, Taylor’s works look like studies in decay. But to her they seem, quite literally, like works in progress.
“There’s a lot going on here, I think,” Taylor says. “I spend a lot of time wrapping these things up, carefully, and then I get them to rust. So I’m breaking them down, and yet I’m protecting them. There’s a contradiction in everything I do.”
It’s a paradox that is not limited to her felt-swaddled hardware. Taylor has put these same themes to the test in lots of different pieces, using even more unusual materials. Take “Balance: Occupy,” for instance, a chunk of rusted metal that’s felted into a kind of rough napkin, then suspended from cables and set down to rest on a peg. Viewers are invited to lift the piece from the peg, to sense the fabric’s airy feel and the metal’s heft. Then there’s “Provenance: Cultivate,” a stack of flaxen paper that Taylor makes by hand, but with iron filings mixed in with the pulp. As the metal gets wet in the papermaking process, telltale streaks of rust begin to stain the pages. And then there’s perhaps the best—as well as the grossest—expression of these ideas: her “Dirty Pillows” projects. Here, she fills regular cotton pillowcases with soil and seed, and waters them liberally. As time passes, the seeds take root and sprout. The pillowcase begins to swell. Mud ravishes the fabric. And soon, green shoots poke through, taking over their makeshift terrarium until the cloth dissolves.
Looking at photographs of Taylor’s mud-filled pillows, you can’t help but wonder whether something has just been profaned here, or if it has been elevated to some divine level. A thing on which you rest your head has sprouted roots and tubers and practically oozes with life. Never has something so mundane seemed so natural, so pure, so organic. And yet, looking at it makes you feel as if perhaps something has been violated, like something pristine and beautiful is being forced into something clumsy and dull. It’s a creepy feeling. The same feeling you get when you look up at the sun-dappled mountains only to find yourself waiting at a red light at Malfunction Junction. There’s the power of irony at work here, and it doesn’t seem lost on Taylor.
She looks down at the soiled pillows and smiles. “These things,” she says, “always make me giggle.”
Toni Matlock Taylor’s work goes on display this Saturday, June 24 in the exhibition Navigating Clutter at the Art Museum of Missoula, 335 N. Pattee. There will be an opening reception and artist’s talk Friday, July 7 from 5 to 8 p.m. Call 728-0447.