JANET TAYLOR PICKETT: Light, Color and Desire

May 27 – September 3, 2023

Oceanside Museum of Art

Light, Color and Desire presents the art of Janet Taylor Pickett, whose pathbreaking work explores Blackness, identity, and history.   A focused solo exhibition of nearly thirty (30) paintings and combines produced between 2003 and 2023, Light, Color and Desire  coronates the artist, as a synecdoche for all women, as  a contemporary goddess who reigns over fertility, fecundity, and embodied experience.  This mythology of Self reaches its apotheosis in Taylor Pickett’s luminous portraiture. Emanating expectancy and resolve, the subjects appear as incarnations of an ongoing desire for social, sexual, and spiritual freedom that is personal and universal. Polemical, unique, politically and socially committed, the art included in Light, Color and Desire demonstrates Taylor Pickett’s arrival at a distinct narrative voice inspired by Johannes Vermeer, Henri Matisse, and Frida Kahlo.

Janet Taylor Pickett was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1948, the third generation in her maternal family to be raised in that city, which was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Her father, Dempsey Taylor Jr., was born in Brownsville, Tennessee and travelled north during the Great Migration, settling with his family in Ypslanti, Michigan. This imbrication of personal and shared Black History is concealed in Taylor Pickett’s work, which pours forth from an arduous path sowed with the sorrow of memories and a sea of desires. In particular, Janet Taylor Pickett’s becoming was influenced by Romare Bearden, whose collaged elements became the bedrock of her own work, situating her as a celebrated collagist.


Janet Taylor Pickett has always been intrigued by light, a preoccupation that she shares with Johannes Vermeer (1632 – 1675). Vermeer implemented camera obscura and applied layers of shadow to achieve the effect of an illuminated subject emerging from the darkness. Taylor Pickett begins with a full composition and then engages color blocking, leaving light to illumine her central subject. Neither plaintive nor condemning, the subjects seem to gaze both inwards and outwards, beholding internal and external topographies with poise and depth. In The Artist Unmasked (2021), the steadfast female gaze belies colossal emotions that the subject restrains. The expression harbors a universal vulnerability; an imperative grace under pressure that a (white) culture expects Black women to retain. This self-possession within constriction also figures in the painting Ladies in Waiting (1981), where the artist is framed by luscious, magenta walls. The light-infused domestic interior pulses with a celestial buoyancy, as though the space hums with ethereal hymns.


Light, Color and Desire positions Janet Taylor Pickett as a colorist: an artist keen to the affordances of each hue, and how they inter-animate each other. Taylor Pickett forgoes neutral tones in favor of a kaleidoscopic color scheme, which conjures mood, light and space. Her saturated palette and enlistment of cutouts highlights her dialogue with Henri Matisse (1869 -1954). In The Ritual (2003), an amalgamation of painted and collaged elements, Taylor Pickett recruits cutout dress forms, which augment and amplify Matisse Cutouts. The work curates an altar that colligates a European reference (a painting by Fra Angelico) to African ones: hennaed hands and a fertility figure ringed with a golden aureole. Its display of talismanic forms and Christian iconography renders the work an homage to Black faith and a votive in its own right.  Taylor Pickett’s Indigo Blue further highlights her visual dialogue with Matisse (Prussian) Blue. This deep affinity for Blue is enacted in Memory of Water II (2021), which substantiates the ever-present call and response water has had in the collective history of African Americans. Water symbolizes the flow of memory from the Nile, to the Mississippi River to the Middle Passage across the Atlantic Ocean; it is the genetic rhythm of memory that water holds.


Engulfed in flora and fauna, ripe with bold self-possession, the intensely embodied subjects in Janet Taylor Pickett’s work suggest her spiritual linkage to Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), who deployed self-portraiture to explore sexuality, femininity, and her relationship to the natural world. In Forest Born (2022), the roots and curls of flora render an organic issuance from nature. Both artists share an autobiographical narrative that weaves pain and joy to desire. In their political commitments and their unapologetic examination of suffering as well as beauty, they are thematically and aesthetically connected across time and space. Taylor Pickett and Frida Kahlo turn to their own bodies as a site and source of inspiration. While Frida Kahlo lingers on trauma, Taylor Pickett, attuned to life’s difficulties, tributes the beauty of the world and the joy of life. This resiliency and jubilance is personified in the recent painting series Gaia (2022), the goddess of the earth, whose gaze is defiant and searching. The portraits enact the apotheosis of self-actualization; the artist-as-subject is endowed with full agency, and regards the viewer with a gaze that harbors the command of a mystic. As a conceptual linchpin of the exhibition, Gaia confers that Light, Color and Desire is seeing the life of Janet Taylor Pickett.

Janet Taylor Pickett is utterly authentic in her vision and scope: an expression of a life being led in pursuit of psychical, spiritual and aesthetic liberation. It marks her as a vessel for femininity writ large—a contemporary goddess whose beauty and power supercharges life itself. While Taylor Pickett approaches the present as a benediction, she also presides over the past. History suffuses her art. As sustained visual poems, the paintings and combines in Light, Color and Desire probe a personal and collective past to posit a distinctly Black mythology of Self. Taylor Pickett’s work is a serious intellectual interrogation of beauty, nature and emotions that enables her recognition at the fore of Contemporary Art. Imbued with the mysticism of devotional work and the enigmatic lyricism of folklore, Janet Taylor Pickett paints as she emotes.

Dr. Jennifer Baahng, Guest Curator


Categories: exhibitions