Mankind's future looks bleak in Katherine Taylor's haunting exhibit Firmament

Painter tackles tumult and tragedy in Marcia Wood Gallery exhibit

Load up on your antidepressants and clutch your teddy bear close. You're going to need some form of cushiony emotional succor to help you through the psychological maelstrom of painter Katherine Taylor's beautiful and haunting exhibit Firmament at Marcia Wood Gallery.

An Atlanta artist, Taylor has tackled tumult and tragedy before. In five solo shows at Marcia Wood, Taylor has chronicled disasters both literal and metaphorical, including floods and hurricanes as well as the cataclysm of existence evoked in her belly-up cars and muddy rivers.

Taylor's previous work often documented a failure- and disaster-tinged Americana in paintings of Biloxi casinos, beauty pageants, and hurricanes rendered in unblinking terms. In her latest body of oil paintings on canvas and aluminum, Taylor takes the idea of literal disaster even further into the hazy, dream-like metaphysical realm. You can envision New Orleans or Joplin in Taylor's paintings of waterlogged roads or rivers the color of Nescafé, but the images suggest an apocalyptic, depopulated realm irreducible to one actual place. In Taylor's transportive paintings, the natural world has jumped its borders and lapped up all of civilization in its wake. It's a Michelangelo Antonioni or Badlands landscape rendered as swampy Dixie, where nature takes its revenge on the misguided ambitions of humanity to conquer the land.

Taylor paints places sodden with desolation. Firmament is a vision of empty swimming pools and concrete slabs in desolate fields where houses once stood, both forming gaping wounds in the earth. Her paintings could be divided into two camps: the oily brown muck of earth, and the storm cloud grays, sky blues, and white clouds of sky and sea beckoning from afar.

The simultaneously gorgeous and forlorn image "Encroachment" features a river of soil-brown water seeping into a cityscape of skyscrapers. In the distance are foreboding, indistinct forms, like water towers, nuclear reactors or factories glimpsed through a fog. At the painting's horizon line is a tall, mysterious spire that casts its shadow onto the murky river. The sentinel spire returns again and again in Taylor's paintings. Some might call it a "telephone pole" or "cell phone tower." To me those hulking, spectral projections are like the tattered flag left on a bloody battlefield, or a baby doll found in a house-fire's ashes. They hint at human presence, and a hope for what once was.

As if recognizing a need for escape from all the bleakness, Taylor sometimes offers momentary relief with hopeful cloud-filled skies that feel like a gulp of oxygen in a subterranean place. It's as though she is taking pity on us, allowing us to imagine exaltation. Such paintings are the moment of levity just before the ax falls, the beam of light illuminating the executioner's knife-edge. Your eye soars to the hopefulness of transcendence in a glimpse of blue.