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  • Source: Supplement Magazine
  • Author: Dylan Kerr
  • Date: ISSUE NO. 2, 2016
  • Format: PRINT

Rules of abstraction

Torey Thornton is a brilliant young artist whose abstract works have won praise around the world. So why does he tell Dylan Kerr that “in the back of my mind, I’m always thinking about when no one will care”?

Photography by Andreas Laszlo Konrath

Torey Thornton is a serious painter. This doesn’t mean he lacks levity – he’s a 26-year-old abstract painter with solo shows in taste-making New York, Los Angeles and London galleries, in an era when the market for emerging artists has achieved legendary status. By most standards, he has plenty to be happy about. Thornton is a serious painter because he takes painting seriously, making each of his striking compositions in acrylic a site for meaningful contemplation and self-expression rather than an excuse for expensive conceptual gamesmanship. It’s refreshing (if somewhat unfashionable) gesture in the current contemporary art climate, and he’s all too aware that his success may not last forever.

Although he drew and painted habitually throughout his childhood in Macon, Georgia, Thornton cites early experiences with Jackson Pollock and Jean-Michel Basquiat documentaries as spurring him in the direction of fine art as a lifestyle. “Those two films messed my head up,” the artist says. “I started to question what was possible with art.” The Abstract Expressionists proved especially inspiring for the young painter, who up until then considered accurate rendering to be the mark of excellence.

By the time Thornton started at New York’s Cooper Union in 2008, de Kooning, Rothko and their contemporaries had achieved mythic proportions, to the point of excluding all other styles. “I didn’t look at artwork in college,” he says. “I didn’t go to shows for four years. I just made work. I knew my bible – New York School painting – and I thought,  ‘I don’t need to look at other work right now. I don’t want to go to these other shows and be influenced or confused, because I’m already confused.’”

He has since rescinded his early aesthetic asceticism in favour of a more omnivorous diet, yet his dedication to the spirit of formal innovation embodied by Ab Ex remains as strong as ever. The single-mindedness of his approach quickly paid off with a solo show at New York’s Karma gallery in 2013, just a year after his graduation. Attention and accolades followed and Thornton found himself propelled into the red-hot emerging art market of the day. Although the hype around his work has cooled to more manageable proportions, Thornton emerged from the experience wary of the fair-weather friends that so often come with early success.

“People come to your opening and say all kinds of things. It’s nice and I appreciate it, but I really don’t believe anybody. I feel like it’s all on a very surface level. I probably talk to four people about the real stuff – that’s why it’s so important to hold the people that you trust and respect close.” This caution extends to his thoughts on his own relevance as an artist, which he recognises can leave him as quickly as it came. “In the back of my mind,” he says, “I’m always thinking about when no on will care.”

By all appearances, Thornton deals with these anxieties by doubling down on his work in the studio, which he characterises as “the closest thing I have to religion.” Asked about his practice, he cites 20-hour work days and an obsessive needs to keep at it, drawing comparisons to a drug addiction or difficult romance: “I love it and I hate it, but even when I don’t like it I have to do it.” His approach isn’t all about the act of painting; discussions of his work quickly turn to the technical and theoretical issues of abstraction in the 21st century, revealing a young man in the process of actively grappling with the strange subtleties of art making.

The results of this effort are what he’s known for today – colourful compositions of shapes that seem on the verge revealing their real-world references only to slide back into the formal delight of colour and shape. He thinks hard about what he calls the “confrontation” that arises from disparate readings of his imagery and embraces the vagueness and mystery of shapes, readily admitting that he doesn’t always remember how or why different structures enter a given painting. This is not to say that Thornton doesn’t care what goes into his works – on the contrary, he’s intensely concerned with every aspect of his painting, fighting to ensure that each mark he makes carries its own compositional weight.

His decisions to paint almost exclusively on wood panels and paper stems from similarly considered stances, both political and practical. His acrylic-on-panel works are the best known of his oeuvre, and spring as much from his effort to celebrate the working-class origins of the medium as they do his desire to leave the inefficiencies of oil paint on canvas behind. “I’m going to be struggling to paint no matter what,” he says, “so I want to get the image and the ideas that I have onto the surface as quickly as possible. The less I prep I need to do the better.” His works on paper are another question entirely. Thornton inveighs against the perceived hierarchy of paper versus canvas, saying with passion in his voice that he wants to “push what painting on paper does.” He seems genuinely incredulous when he asks, “Why is it looked down upon? We’re in 2016.”

Although he avoids expounding the personal histories behind individual works (preferring instead to complicate straightforward readings with esoteric titles that he calls “bookmarks” to remember his own thoughts on the paintings), Thornton can’t help but invest emotionally in the finished products. “I spend so much time and energy thinking about this stuff that it becomes really, really personal, “ he says. “This is everything for me, and there’s a sort of moral obligation that comes with something that serious.”

At the end of our conversation, Thornton takes a wide view of his practice: “Years from now we’ll see where the work is. I think if you’re being honest and really trying to put yourself in the work, no mater what trends and whatever happens, the work will do something. It will be there.” He pauses and trails off, “Maybe that’s romantic…” It is romantic, of course. In an era that seems anything but, maybe a little romance isn’t such a bad thing.