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Torey Thornton Paints a Picture: The Venturesome Artist Refuses Any Easy Answers

Artist Torey Thornton and I are in their Brooklyn studio on a late July evening as, outside, a storm is breaking a long heat wave. Inside, Thornton is deciding how much to say about three new paintings destined for their solo show in October at the Modern Art gallery in London.

The paintings are so different from one another that, at a glance, it might be hard to believe the same artist is responsible for them all. The first is the most traditional: a large silver canvas shaped like an upside-down T, a few hairs from Thornton’s paintbrush clinging to its surface, and the phrases “A.I.,” “1956,” and “1463” scrawled across it in spray paint. The second is a paint-splattered piece of cardboard with a sizeable hole in it, affixed to a thick panel. Rising like a flagpole next to those two is the third, a 9-foot-tall, 2-inch-wide metal stud holding a wooden dowel that’s nearly as tall, and painted with red and green stripes. They all share a certain scrappy, taut intelligence.

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“This whole show is supposed to be . . .” Thornton begins, then stops to think. They—Thornton identifies as gender nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns—are sitting in an office chair, wearing a black baseball cap, short shorts, and high socks. They continue, “I think I won’t say. I’ll wait. It’ll be really apparent when it comes out.”

[View photographs from inside Torey Thornton’s studio.]

Thornton is private about their process. They operate solo, sans assistants, and unlike many of their peers, they don’t flood Instagram with their works. “It’s almost like they’re mimicking the brands, whether fashion or Gillette,” they tell me of that approach. “A lot of the world, I think, gets flattened through this oversaturation.”

For Thornton, the ideal situation is for an artwork to be seen first in person. “I was always really fascinated by the mysticism and the surprise of a work,” they tell me. “When you come and you see this new thing, there’s a rush of emotional stimulation, whether you like it or not. It could be the most unattractive or uninteresting thing, but to see it all at once does something.”

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Torey Thornton, Whole Glory, 2014–2019, installation view. Ben Westoby. © the artist. Courtesy the artist & Modern Art, London

The truth of Thornton’s work, which has spilled over from painting into sculpture and installation of late, is that it is anything but uninteresting. The artist’s new works are events.

At 29, Thornton is one of the most closely watched young artists right now, and a rare figure in today’s collector-driven art world who is successful with both the market (shows with galleries Shane Campbell in Chicago, Morán Morán in Los Angeles, and Essex Street in New York) and museums (a 2016 Albright-Knox outing and the 2017 Whitney Biennial, where they memorably displayed a gargantuan metal buzz saw adorned with painted rocks).

Thornton became obsessed with making art at an early age. They were born in Macon, Georgia, moved to New York to attend Cooper Union at 18, and have been in the city ever since. “I was really interested in not doing the same thing as everyone else,” they said, recalling their childhood and their teen years in and out of the punk scene. “I didn’t understand why people weren’t asking as many questions.”

Over the past few years, they have moved from producing preternaturally beautiful, bright-hued paintings with teases of figuration toward trickier terrain, enlisting materials found on the street and at hardware stores, and placing them in conversations that are disquieting, darkly humorous and politically tinged. Their art is slippery and polyvalent—hard to pin down. “I like to think about a type of ambiguity,” they told me, “but not in the sense of being closed off.”

For Thornton, simple aesthetic pleasure is not particularly interesting. In today’s world, they said, “there’s not a lot of space for just, ‘This is really attractive.’ I think that’s a particular privilege that a lot of people don’t have time for.”

Ideas for works often start as coded notes that Thornton makes on their iPhone, which they sometimes have to decipher later. Producing something that looks like art is easy enough, they said, but “to start to peel back different inconsistencies in the way that we think, or the contradictions in life, and other things within the art world, that’s the hard part for me.”

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“Torey Thornton: Subdominium Edges Y Assumed Legalities,” exhibition view, at Modern Art, Helmet Row, London, through February 1, 2020. Photo: Ben Westoby. Courtesy the artist & Modern Art, London

For a recent work, Thornton combined the 50 most popular male and female baby names—“EMMALIAM,” “MMOLIVIANOAH”—and wrote them onto a slab of cardboard, creating evocative portmanteaus that radiate racial and class-based associations. The work was pivotal for Thornton in terms of thinking about gender identity. Its title: Untitled Political Aliens (Top Fifty U.S. Babies 2018 Gender Mashed To Make My New).

“I look at the title as an opportunity to make more space for the painting,” Thornton tells me, explaining that they sometimes use titles to create “tension”—to add levity to a serious piece or vice versa. Their titles redound with puns, homophones, and language twists. The new paintings in the studio are no exception: the one with the gaping hole has the working title Whole Glory, referring, they say, to “the glory hole in terms of a sexual space, but then thinking about the glory, whole. As in, What is wholesome glory? That’s really strange—it makes me feel a little sick, even. It feels like this false patriotism.”

The origin of Whole Glory came five years ago, when Thornton spotted the cardboard fragment on the street and picked it up. “I walk and I bike a lot,” they say. “I just look. My brain connects to surprising things.” They’ve also been collecting crushed cans and found ID tags that New York City puts on newly planted trees. In the studio, a sign for a fruit seller reading “PRODUCE” (an eBay purchase, and another word that Thornton relishes for its multiple meanings), is propped against one wall.

“Usually I’m looking for something that has meaning when you approach it,” Thornton says of the objects they select. “It immediately starts giving away signifiers, and then I try to apply paint, to complicate that or go against those materials.” Their approach to art history is similarly multilayered. That upside-down T copies the format of a painting by artist Olivier Mosset and recalls a Frank Stella, but it also hints at their name, they say.

Before I leave the studio, I ask about a pink monochrome painting—totally blank—on the floor not far from the PRODUCE sign. Thornton is thinking about painting on it some text, though they are cagey about the specifics. They are feeling nervous about how some might interpret those words.

“But I get nervous about a lot of things,” Thornton says, “usually when paintings or artworks in general are pushing some sort of space, or feel really fresh, or are revealing in some way or another. But that actually means they’re probably going to do something interesting—I hope.”

A version of this article appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of ARTnews.

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