Concertgoers training their ears on fiery flows at Kendrick Lamar’s recent show Friday at Lollapalooza in Grant Park, Chicago—among other festivals this summer— have also been treated to pointed material for the eye: stage sets that pay tribute to the sexagenarian Los Angeles artist Henry Taylor. Instead of visual stimulation that fixates on video and digital effects, Lamar’s current tour traffics in fabric that unfurls to reveal paintings of Black figures engaged in various kinds of suggestive gazes and stare-downs with whoever might be looking their way.
Six paintings by Taylor—all made between 2006 and 2018—feature in the tour, with each show rotating through four on an alternating basis.
“We wanted a kind of show that didn’t depend on LED walls or anything like that—just backdrops revealing themselves over the course of the show in a lo-fi, theatrical, old-Broadway type of way,” said Mike Carson, the show director and co-designer with Lamar and his longtime collaborator Dave Free. “When you go to a festival or a show, there are things you’re always going to see. One thing I love about Kendrick and Dave is that they’re always like, ‘How do we flip that on its head?’ If people at a festival see the same thing for eight hours in a day and then you come on at 11 p.m., how can you refresh the palate?”
Lamar met Taylor during a studio visit last year and proposed the idea later when trying to figure out how to follow up his elaborate “Big Steppers Tour” with something more pared-down and direct. “Henry’s a fan of Kendrick and there’s a lot of mutual respect and admiration for each other,” Carson said of the two fellow Angelenos. “They were both really excited.”
Together with Lamar and Free, Carson mocked up a sketch of what they imagined, and then Taylor and his team at the gallery Hauser & Wirth sent images of artworks they thought might make sense. Once that was whittled down, Carson figured out how to enlarge the works and print them on a polyester silk surface that could be trucked around on the road and unrolled to star on stage when showtime comes.
“Some of the art we had printed at 60 feet wide by 34 feet tall, so you see the details of this stuff bigger than ever,” Carson said. “On the poly silk, the colors pop, and it’s also light enough to travel with and safe enough that, if it blows like crazy, it doesn’t knock Kendrick off the stage.”
The works by Taylor—whose art also stars in Pharrell Williams’s recent debut menswear collection for Louis Vuitton—started appearing in Lamar’s show at Primevera Sound in Barcelona in June and featured on Friday night at Lollapalooza in Chicago. More shows will follow into the fall in North America and Asia.
Throughout the tour’s run, Carson said, the art of Henry Taylor has been a suitable co-star for Lamar and his incomparable tales told in the form of rap.
“Henry’s use of color and the storytelling within his art is really impressive, but there’s something about it that feels like homemade and attainable that I think that speaks to the stories of the characters in his art,” Carson said. “We all see a lot of things that are so polished and overly stylized or overly computer-generated, but I really feel the stories in Henry’s art. As a Black man, I definitely see a lot of my history and a lot of my family’s history—and I’m sure a lot of other people do too.”