Art Review: John Hood-Taylor's 'Drunk Doilies' manifest spare beauty on bar napkins

Like snowflakes, John Hood-Taylor's drawings are each one of a kind.

Like snowflakes, John Hood-Taylor's drawings are each one of a kind.

One takes one's art where one gets it, and sometimes that's at the P&H Café, a.k.a. the P&H Center for the Arts, conceived and curated by artist Dwayne Butcher. There, in the far southwest corner of the bandstand, sharing space with the Elvis mummy and overshadowed by Brad McMillan's justly famous ceiling mural of local politicians — some now obscure and forgotten — is a wall devoted to art display.

On view now is "Drunk Doilies," a show of 20 drawings by John Hood-Taylor, a recent graduate of Memphis College of Art. While it's always advisable to take artists' statements with a grain of skepticism — artists tend to be better at visual than verbal expression — here's Hood-Taylor's statement in full: "Drunk Doilies is a series of radial-symmetrical drawings done on beverage napkins. Each one is composed while I drink at the bar in the evening. This recent series is a meditation on the state of my mind while reaching full-blown inebriation in a public atmosphere."

Notice the qualifying phrase "while reaching." I doubt that even the most reined-in artist could have achieved the utter control of the medium that Hood-Taylor reveals in these drawings in a state of "full-blown inebriation." There may have been some loosening of the creative juices but not what French poet Arthur Rimbaud called the "derangement of the senses." What clearly operates here is a wry combination of the artful with artlessness.

Think of an ordinary square white beverage napkin as a snowflake, the fleeting, crystalline entity not one of which replicates any other. Hood-Taylor offers only 20 examples of his kaleidoscopic efforts, but one gets the idea that he could go on and on.

The paradox is that within the simplicity of the format lies what feels like an infinite range of possibilities. Not many of these items are as whimsical as the one that features little childlike sailing ships, pairs of tiny fish and pock-marked moons, the rest being more geometrical, more pattern-oriented and mandalalike, densely floral, blooming psychedelia, as we relate that word to the mind-bending graphics of the marijuana- and LSD-fueled 1960s.

Don't forget, however, that the word "psychedelic" derives from two Greek roots that mean "soul-revealing" or "soul-manifesting." If there's one thing we know about art, it's that the very simplicity of movement and gesture, the sheer performance of repetition and pattern may trigger those soul-revealing aspects almost by default.

Not that there's anything accidental or random about Hood-Taylor's "drunken" drawings. At one level, as an exhibition, both organic and regimented, they're pretty awesome; this is not automatic writing or the old artists' barroom game of Exquisite Corpse. There's a peculiar kind of beauty here, spare, pared-down, almost elegant; the drawings feel spontaneous and of-the-moment yet oddly timeless.

Those who have seen the show may be thinking, at this point, "Come on, we're just talking about pen and ink and napkins. Get real!" To which I respond: We get our aesthetic and emotional thrills where we find them. As I stood there in the P&H gazing at these 20 drawings in their ordered arrangement, I couldn't help thinking that altogether they make the most spiritual art now in town.

John Hood-Taylor, 'Drunk Doilies'

At the P&H Café, 1532 Madison, through Nov. 5. Call (901) 726-0906.

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