Simon Taylor’s photoreal paintings transcend not only photography but painting itself. Just as in a film, where subtle changes in narrative can be indicated by moving the focus of the camera, Simon directs the viewer’s eye to a sheer line of focus down the centre of the main subject in his latest work. Everything around it shimmers in a pictorial hinterland of peripheral vision. The surfaces are miraculous, smooth; they look as if the image has been projected onto the canvas; there is no evidence of a worked surface, even on very close examination.

A combination of delicate airbrushing and fine brushes are used to conjure into existence an image captured with a macro lens and a short depth of field that instantly blurs everything beyond that focus. A story can be told by manipulating where the focus is placed in the picture. Between film, where a viewer spends time with a character, following them in and out of consecutive scenes, and photography, where the viewer has no relationship with the image but only views it and walks by, Simon’s paintings, as he puts it “spend time with the viewer”.

At the end of his garden, his studio is a temporary home to four of six of his latest paintings, the series ‘In a Suspended State’ – at the time of writing, two have already been sold. The series includes In a Suspended State of Happiness, a close-up of a woman’s lipsticked mouth about to sip from a glass of dry Martini. The imminence of the contact between her lips and the elegantly thin bluish glass of the drink is at the heart of the painting; the rest of the detail of the scene slides out of focus.  

In The Truth Is.... Sometimes I Miss You So Much I can Hardly Stand It, an immaculate vision of a shiny Zippo lighter reflects the iconic black, white and red of a cigarette packet. The sharpness of the focus in the centre and the rushing away of detail into the periphery mean that the painting mimics the panning round of a camera; these are images imbued with movement and a heady intimacy of viewpoint.

We Were in this Together and then You Were Gone depicts a replica gun, barrel pointing at the viewer, lying on a table top, in black and white. The use of a very familiar cinematic prop raises many questions about fact and fiction, photography and painting. The works undeniably comment on art mirroring reality, but also further layers of meaning arise in the process of the transformation the chosen objects undergo between the media of photography and painting. The metallic weight of the gun resting on the table, and the angle of it, implies that it is loaded; as a metaphor, it is also loaded in the sense of being pregnant with meaning.

For At This Moment with You, Simon has photographed for his source material a model applying lipstick, the pose taken from a film sequence. In the language of film, putting makeup on signifies something; in his paintings, Simon stresses the telling detail of the kind of objects that are referenced in film to enhance and coax meaning from a scene. But again, as with We Were in This Together and then You Were Gone, the meaning is unclear; the viewer is left with a series of compelling but mysterious elements of a fragmentary narrative.

Bittersweet Strawberry shows a woman’s mouth speaking into a telephone receiver. Because it is a 1970s phone, the viewer begins to place a narrative on the work, to contextualise it; the viewer is left to decode the title, which refers in part to the strawberry lipstick; does it signify a negative or a positive conversation is going on? It’s human nature to wish to interpret such emphatic highlighting of certain objects and images.

In Still Nothing Compared to what you had on that First Magical Time, a broken Viagra tablet lies on a flat surface, the contrast between its crumbling pristine white interior and gleaming electric blue coating highlighted with dazzling clarity. The title implies a story – a love affair, a regret or a longing for the past. The other weightiness that these paintings are heavy with is the implication of infinity within their conceptual framework. As they mimic film stills, they are potentially innumerable; to pursue the idea, the artist could be perpetually engaged in forever recreating the next still in succession.

Simon tells me about the work ethic he has always had that has led to such a labour-intensive style. He admits to being a perfectionist: “I always need to improve on what I have done before. That’s why I paint in series – I’m driven to making them look really good. It’s a process of continual learning. Once I have learned a technique I need to move on to the next thing.” When Simon left school he went straight into work. Later, in 1994, he graduated from a BA at Manchester Metropolitan University.

He became interested in photography part-way through his degree, entering a composite work that made use of a photograph taken from the TV of a Gulf War soldier who had been beaten up and one of Des Barnes from Coronation Street into the North West Open Photography Competition. He began taking stills that were supposed to be something swiftly consumed as images, but instead he was catching hold of them and sticking them fast. His ensuing photorealist style was effectively self-taught, he recalls. “I got my skills by learning and by hard work and experimenting. You learn how to paint by doing it. Wanting to do it in a certain way makes you do it better.”

I ask Simon how he prepares his ground. “I prime the canvases with between ten and fifteen layers of primer and sand down to a glass finish. Some are painted on aluminium. I tried acrylic on aluminium but I needed a specific primer.” This led to him taking a work to a car painter, who applied ten layers of clear lacquer, buffed back, which, he says, “had an amazing effect.” This painting was Seduction #1, part of a series from 2009. We talk about how it is possible to get a feel for the composition, the space available within a certain format, to carry the whole image in one’s head. “I used to do something wrong, and start all over again. A detail in the wrong place for example. I have refined that now more and more; I don’t do it so often.”

Regarding technique, he makes the analogy of a photo (his source material) being printed out in magenta, cyan and yellow from an inkjet printer, the fine airbrushing style he uses mimicking this minute application of tiny spurts of colour. It must be very intensive work, I suggest; how long can he keep painting such detail before he needs a break? “Four or five hours… I can’t look at it too long. There’s a lot of sitting back and thinking about, is it right? The next day I can look at it and it’s better than I thought.” He adds, “By the end of it, you’re ready to start a new series. At the beginning you just want to go on doing it forever. But it’s about progression.” As regards whether or not the painting process is calming, it’s the opposite, he says: “I find it really frustrating. Desperate! It’s work. It’s hard work. When I have achieved something on a tiny scale – there are a few moments when you think, yes – I’ve really nailed it. But there are only a few moments like that.”

When I ask him who his influences are, he laughs: “Other people who make better paintings than me!” He is only really struck by the work of certain other artists; “If I like it, I have to rush to see how it’s done.” What inspires Simon Taylor? “Just to make paintings that I like. Paintings that I like are the ones I wish I’d made myself. For me, it’s ideas, skill, photography, films, pictures. About pushing myself – I get bored when I know I can do it.” And is the rich seam of inspiration that he has uncovered almost infinite in potential? “In a way you have to narrow it down a lot. It is infinite. The subject matter is infinite but your interest isn’t. The last series has taken over two years. You’ve got to be passionate to invest in that amount of time. Changing the process keeps me interested.” True to his aspiration, the work just keeps getting better – closer to perfection every time.

© Jo Manby - Art Critic, Writer.
September 2014