Visitors to the Boise Art Museum's Sculpture Court and the adjacent Nelson Gallery could be forgiven for thinking they have stepped into a Cape Cod curiosity shop. Moored atop judiciously parked pedestals is an unusual collection of derelict ships out of a bygone era, seemingly stranded both physically and metaphorically by the low tide of receding history. Other specimens of maritime myth and legend are wall-mounted.
John Taylor's sculptures are a curious blend of the historic and the intuitive, of researched fact and poetic license. The tendency is to assign this work to that nebulous category called "outsider art," but it is not a clear fit. A landscape architect with design experience, Taylor is not a trained artist nor does he use traditional art supplies. Rather, his medium consists of bits of scrap metal and broken toys, recycled wood and the varied detritus of our post-industrial society. His interests lie not in theories of art but in the technological transformations of the late 19th and early 20th centuries as steam and diesel overtook the sail, a theme that preoccupied artists from J.M.W. Turner through the early modernists.
Nevertheless, the results are unexpected. Unlike the work of many outsider artists, and despite the non-art materials and folk-art influences, there is nothing naive or rudimentary about Taylor's naval architecture. On the other hand, neither are they model replicas of the pristine originals. Taylor focuses on actual vessels that were lost through misfortune or old age and were never seen again. He imagines their afterlife either on the ocean floor or in the scrap yard, applying a "salvage" aesthetic, if you will, that echoes the appeal found materials and distressed surfaces have for contemporary visual artists. The haunted presence of these pieces and their resonance with the viewer give them an added dimension and sophistication.
Taylor's ships evoke an era of international steam-powered industry and adventure. The riverboat Empire has an African Queen-like appearance and could just as easily be exploring the waters of the Dark Continent as plying the Hudson River. Some are more famous, like the notorious World War I German raider Kronprinz Wilhelm, and the Japanese aircraft carrier Shinano, which was sunk just hours after first putting to sea, with its full complement of warplanes. And there is the Civil War ironclad, the Monitor. But at heart, Taylor prefers to relate lesser-known histories, bringing to our attention the obscure and the anonymous.
Many of Taylor's pieces are entertaining for their sheer eccentricity or air of early science fiction. Nautilus II is a takeoff on Jules Verne's fictional submarine, its long, eel-shaped body and harpoon bow capturing the 19th century notion of sinister technology. Ross Winans' First Personal Craft is a bizarre "cigar ship" with its spiral tapered bow and stern, and serious power source amidships. The oxidized copper sheathing on both vessels gives the look of algae-covered submersibles.
The folk-art component of Taylor's work is most obvious in his workhorse steamboats and ferries, and in the animal subjects, particularly his Whale which is right out of Melville. (His "Arctic Penguin" series is especially odd.) Yet, it is Taylor's meticulous rendering of the decaying of once-proud products of human ingenuity that stays with us.
John Taylor's "Submerge" runs through May 25. Boise Art Museum, 670 Julia Davis Dr., 208-345-8330, BoiseArtMuseum.org. Hours are Tues.-Sat., 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thurs., 10 a.m.-8 p.m.; Sun., noon-5 p.m.; closed Monday.