‘It’s a Game That I Play with Myself About How to Shift the Familiar’: A Talk with Torey Thornton

Torey Thornton photographed in London on August 19, 2015. MAX CREASY

Torey Thornton photographed in London on August 19, 2015.


Torey Thornton’s show “Kneed a Sea Ware Groin” at London’s Stuart Shave/ Modern Art closed on October 3.

Bill Powers: I’ve noticed that a couple of your paintings are done on what appears to be fencing.
Torey Thornton: There’s a relationship to fencing, but it’s maybe closer to house siding. I use the lines between the slats as part of the composition. I started off doing something similar with the paper pieces, gluing sheets together where the seams in between relate to the picture. I see the slatted panels that I make as having this sort of built-from-the-ground-up painting surface.

BP: Do you think of that predetermined quality as something to fight against?
TT: Sometimes I make things harder for myself than they need to be, yeah. People will ask me, “Why don’t you paint on canvas or use oil paint?” It doesn’t make sense to me. I don’t like the surface of canvas. I’ll work on paper or panel because they’re both very smooth.

BP: There’s another red-and-yellow painting in your studio that almost looks like a flag.
TT: I saw it somehow as architectural. I imagined the yellow stripes as crop lines you might see flying over farm country.

BP: Your earlier work was more figurative.
TT: A lot of that was residue from what I was doing before I started showing, but I wanted to open up the conversation. Recently I was making these abstracted lobster forms—or rather it started with that idea—and then I broke it down even further.

BP: Lobsters are such a loaded symbol to use, given their association with Dalí or Koons or dozens of other painters.
TT: In a way, hasn’t every animal been used by artists? Maybe not so much something like the iguana. For me, it’s a game I play with myself about how to shift the familiar but keep things recognizable enough that you think you know what you’re looking at—almost this tracer image buried in the picture.

BP: Do you ever take issue with a particular color? Like how Mondrian rejected the color green in his painting?
TT: I always want my paintings to be stranger, not immediately attractive.

BP: Were you exposed to art as a child?
TT: I grew up in Macon, Georgia, where there wasn’t a lot of contemporary art. We had a museum of arts and science where you could see dinosaur bones. The funny thing is they just had a Thornton Dial show there, which I would never have expected. I remember seeing the Pollock film and the Basquiat film the summer before high school, which prompted me to do research, but without the Internet I don’t know where I’d be.

BP: How do you come up with titles for paintings?
TT: Mostly I try not to make them too literal, because I see the title as another layer to the painting.

BP: Do you have a favorite title?
TT: There’s a chrome painting I showed with Stuart Shave/Modern Art at Art Basel recently. I had been making gold paintings for a while, but never really silver or chrome paintings before. Then I went to the Whitney and saw Warhol’s silver Elvis paintings, and I titled mine “First, After I Saw Elvis Look at Me and Imagined Him Looking to Andy.” So that one’s sort of literal.

BP: Do you ever insert ideas about race into your paintings?
TT: Maybe there’s some secret stuff, but not really. When you’re a black artist people expect a certain thing, which maybe I’m working against. I always thought it was a cop out to have to talk about being an African American artist to be successful. Then if you start painting figures, people will read all kinds of things into it. If I were a white guy painting other white guys, no one would ever ask if they were racial paintings. I respect those artists who talk about racial and societal issues wholeheartedly. David Hammons already killed it in that area, why should I coattail him? I have other concerns and things to say.

A version of this story originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 38 under the title “The Renaissance: In Stereo.”

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