by Daniel Tidwell
Bold, large-scale abstractions, encompassing a wide range of formal devices and art historical references are at the heart of the vibrant and ever-evolving visual world of painter Bernie Taupin. Along with his long-time collaborator Elton John, Taupin is the creator of some of the best-known songs of the pop/rock era. “Rocket Man,” “Candle in the Wind,” “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” to name a few, are songs that are part of the collective pop cultural consciousness. Today Taupin lives and works on a ranch near Santa Barbara, California, where, since the early ’90s, he has devoted himself to painting in a cavernous, converted racquetball court—an apt environment to create paintings that hark back to the era of Abstract Expressionism.
Painting was a natural creative progression for Taupin. “Art has always been in the background of my life. When I was younger, starting out, music was obviously the central force, but visual art was always somewhere hovering on the sidelines.”
He credits his mother with igniting his creative passions, instilling an appreciation for art and poetry at an early age. “She was a huge influence on me on a literary and artistic level. Even when I was a small child, she would sit me down on her knee and show me books with pictures by Turner and Gauguin, so I was very much in tune with art in general, whether it be visual or audio. It was always in the back of my mind.”
In the ’70s when Taupin’s music career brought him to New York, he was drawn to the city’s galleries and museums, finding his greatest affinity with the work of Abstract Expressionists including Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, and Hans Hofmann. “I didn’t really have a favorite,” says Taupin. “It was just a visual feast for the eye; it was so enlightening. I really Ioved the fact that these paintings made you think . . . using your eyes to figure it out. When people ask me today what something means, whether it’s a song or a piece of art, my feeling is, what does it mean to you? I’ve always wanted people to use their own imaginations to figure it out, just as I use my imagination to create it.”
The influence of the Abstract Expressionists is clearly visible in Taupin’s work today, particularly that of Hans Hofmann. “Hofmann was the guy that really appealed to me when I was younger. I would always come back to him because I loved the fact that his colors were so striking. They were almost straight out of the tube. I loved the vibrancy of it,” says the artist.
Within the abstract languages of these painters, Taupin was able to find his own visual vocabulary and develop a process of working, taking “vistas and skylines and inanimate objects and breaking them down into basic forms. It’s almost like looking at something and getting an x-ray picture of it.” Although he enjoys the rural vistas surrounding his studio, Taupin says that his greatest inspiration comes from the urban experience: “I get much more of a charge from urban vistas because they have these edges that can be transformed. You can take a shape, put color into it, and transform it into something else. It’s like taking real-life situations, throwing them in a blender, and then creating another reality with a very vivid imagination.”
Taupin’s work has evolved dramatically since he began painting full time. His works reference a wide range of styles, from the gestural abstraction of Joan Mitchell to the formal push and pull perfected by Hofmann to the purely geometric abstraction of Barnett Newman and Bridget Riley. In a way, Taupin approaches abstraction in a very post-modern manner, trying on different styles and working through them until he’s ready to move on to the next thing. “I’m pretty critical looking back at my work, and I think I’ve reached a place now where I’m pretty happy with what I’m doing . . . and I think there’s a definitive style. But at the same time it’s very hard, because sometimes I want to try something else.”
Taupin’s shifting styles bring to mind the way in which Gerhard Richter moves between figuration and abstraction, focusing on the painting process rather than adhering to one style.
For Taupin, “It’s very gratifying to know that there are other people out there that can’t be fenced in, because it is frustrating to see how many great artists did stay within the box of one style.” Taking Pollock as an example:
“To continually do the drip paintings, and do as many as he did, even as wonderful as they are, that would be incredibly frustrating to me. After I’d done about three or four I’d be finished.“
Abstraction is a painting genre that has come under critical fire over the last few decades with some saying that its possibilities have been exhausted, raising questions about its efficacy as a means of communication. While Taupin agrees that these are legitimate questions, he disagrees with the conclusion that abstraction is worn out. “There will always be someone who comes along with something new to say. You could relate the same question to music,” says Taupin. “People say all musical genres have been exhausted, but there are always some more chords that will work together, and you can say the same thing about art.”
“I don’t stay awake at night worrying if people are going to think my work is derivative or unoriginal—you can’t let that shackle you,” says the artist. “If you enjoy doing something, then you have to go ahead and do it and hope that you have an audience for it. But at the same time I’m not going to stop doing something just because somebody says well you’re not doing anything new.”
Taupin has an easygoing manner and an infectious enthusiasm for art. “I get very excited about my paintings when I think and talk about them. The whole process of creating is so much fun to me. I get very passionate about it because I enjoy it so much.” He’s so enthusiastic about his work that he often finds it hard to let go of particular paintings with which he feels a deep connection. “You have to make the conscious decision that you will let your children go, because sometimes it’s difficult when a painting comes together and you think that really, really is exactly what I wanted to create. There’s a pulse in that painting that’s a part of me.”
The Rymer Gallery in Downtown Nashville will show a selection of Taupin’s work from March 30 to April 7. You can meet the artist at the gallery on April 6 and 7 from 1 to 3 p.m. www.therymergallery.com