Alison Elizabeth Taylor, a 35-year-old artist who grew up in Las Vegas, uses the ancient craft of wood inlay, known as marquetry, to explore contemporary subjects. Her latest show at James Cohan Gallery in New York, where she now lives, includes scenes of disaffected youth bicycling, swimming or just hanging out in the American Southwest - all rendered in the very finest woods. There's also a trompe l'oeil installation that simulates the kind of exurban shack that such dropouts might live in. It updates a great Italian masterpiece of marquetry: the little wood-panel "studiolo," decorated with trompe l'oeil books and instruments, that was installed in 1482 in the Ducal Palace in Gubbio and is now in New York's Metropolitan Museum. Taylor spoke with us about how and why she came to marquetry.
I'd always seen wood inlay around, mostly as household objects, the way anyone would. But I didn't really discover it as an actual art form, with this long history behind it, until I moved to New York and I saw the piece in the Met -- the studiolo from the Ducal Palace in Gubbio.
I had already been using wood-grained contact paper quite a bit, collaged into my paintings. I was kind of going toward wood inlay: I had actually gone to buy veneer, I think for a class, and it was really expensive. And then later that day I was at a 99-cent store, and I found all these rolls of paper, and bought all of them, and started using them. And that's where it started.
The shelving paper definitely had associations -- kind of an irony, because it's such an ugly material. And it seemed like using wood, a material that it takes much longer to force into the shapes that you want, gave my subjects more weight, and it reflected how sincerely I felt about them.
This current body of work is mostly about people who don't quite fit into society. They want to be able to do their own thing and live in their own way. Going out West, living in the desert where there's not so many people around, there's not so much regulation, and you can get by really cheaply -- that's a way of doing that.
I'm looking at this whole history of marquetry, and it's pretty much been used to glorify rich, powerful people. And I thought it hadn't really gotten a shot at day-to-day life. And because it's got that beauty, and it has that fascination, you can draw people's eyes to it, and make them look longer at stuff they might disregard, or try to look away from.
There are definitely a lot of hobbyists that do marquetry. And I think the contrast is really interesting between how high marquetry was, and how low it is now in some people's eyes. I don't know where I fit into that, but I kind of like that nebulous space.
-- Interview conducted and condensed by Blake Gopnik
Alison Elizabeth Taylor's exhibition runs through June 21 at the James Cohan Gallery, 533 W. 26th St., New York. Call 212-714-9500 or visit www.jamescohan.com.
PHOTOS: James Cohan Gallery WEB EDITOR: Amanda McGrath - washingtonpost.com