Inspired by movies, pop culture, fashion, and Bernini, Storm Tharp has been exhibiting his ink and gouache paintings in Portland, Oregon and Geneva, Switzerland for years. His work will be included in the 2010 biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. DailyServing’s Bean Gilsdorf recently spoke with the artist about his inclusion in the Whitney Biennial, the idea of identity as performance, and the role of realism and abstraction in his current portraits.
Bean Gilsdorf: You just finished the work that’s going into the 2010 Whitney Biennial. How many pieces?
Storm Tharp: Five pieces, all large-scale portraits.
BG: And how did the Whitney process start?
ST: Well, there’s the condensed version, which is about this biennial and my relationship to it. But when Larry Rinder curated the biennial—that would have been about eight years ago—it was the first time that I had ever been exposed to somebody coming to town on behalf of the Whitney. So when you ask how it started, I want to take it all the way back there. I feel like there was some momentum that started then.
BG: And you’re in the collection of the Whitney.
ST: That’s true, but they [2010 Whitney Biennial curators Francesco Bonami and Gary Carrion-Murayari] weren’t aware of that. I assumed they knew. I brought it to their attention and we thought it was really funny.
BG: And did you meet with Larry back then?
ST: Yeah. Little did he know, or did I know, that the work that was so unbelievably half-baked at that time would turn into the nugget of where I am now.
BG: What did you show him then?
ST: It’s funny, I was really embarrassed as soon as he walked out the door. I was just scratching the surface about Japanese theater, where the details in the masks denote the kind of character being played. This is also mirrored in Chinese opera: messy facial makeup helps the audience understand that the character is unstable. I had just scratched the surface of this kind of representation, the physiognomy of the face. And I brought up Noh, and Larry was immediately like, “Oh, you’re interested in the theater”, and I realized that I had no idea what I was talking about. And the work was totally juvenile and half-baked. But that work led to where I am now.
BG: And now when people come in do you still say, “I’m interested in Noh”?
ST: No, I don’t… People get hung up on things like likeness, they want to know what the source materials are, whether I’m working from photographs, “Is that you?” “That looks familiar, is that someone I know?” Those are totally normal questions, but I find them to be conversational questions. We’re not really getting at anything by answering those questions. When I talk about it now, I don’t go to Noh theater or Chinese opera as often, even though it’s interesting to me.
BG: Do you feel it’s still the core?
ST: I think the idea of performing, developing character…
BG: Identity as performance?
ST: Exactly. I think in a way it’s just inescapable. I’ve learned that Japanese woodblock prints and portraits from the 18th to the 20th century were reflections of Kabuki theater actors. I’ve looked more at Japanese woodblock prints of actors than I have ever gone to Noh theater. Also, Kabuki, as I understand it, is the commoner’s theater, whereas Noh is high theater. So Noh is almost too refined. I like all the noise and clamor of the Kabuki actors, there’s just more drama, more fun. And these are also related to things like Biblical representations, Bernini…and granted, those aren’t actors, but it is a portrayal of character, a development, that big picture. I like to play with the public figure, and also the personal.
BG: Let’s go back to what you said about noise. There’s a lot of visual noise in your work, is that just an artifact of your process?
ST: Do you mean details, like setting and accouterments?
BG: In this body of work that you’ve done there’s often something like a clearly defined eye, but there will be a lot of bleeding of ink around it and you have to work a little more to make out the nose. How much of that do you feel you are in control of?
ST: The noise part, the parts that are harder to control, the more abstract places, I think those are really where the best parts are. I like details, but I prefer to not have to rely on realism. So when the work can speak for itself and come on its own terms because of the materials, ink and water bleeding, I think that’s the best part. All of the other things, the clothing, the hair, the setting, that’s all just in aid of the more naturally found noises. It all starts there. Then depending on how chaotic or refined that is determines how that character is developed. If it’s really messy, then the things I start adding on around it will be less and less, to balance out the chaos. If it’s not very chaotic, it will probably get a lot of drama.
BG: So you’re working on a push-pull effect in each one?
ST: I think so.
BG: For example, in The Ex-King there’s a lot of bleeding in his face, but his pinstriped shirt is tight and precise.
ST: That’s a really good example, because I look at that face as a reminder of being loose, because the more I do them the more I am learning how the accidents will go and I start to control the chaos, even more than I would like to. That was a very early one, and I look at it often and think, “Remember when you didn’t know how to do it?” Similarly, that shirt: I’m really proud of it and I love it, I don’t think that face works without that shirt, but I don’t want make that shirt ever again. There are a few works that I’ve done where I think, “Well, got that under my belt, I’m not interested in doing that again.” I’m really happy to have done it, but I don’t need to return.
BG: Is that why these are so dissimilar?
ST: Yes, definitely.
BG: Do you get bored?
ST: I have found that I don’t like doing the same thing twice. And it’s not because I don’t completely admire artists who do, but I don’t let myself do it. Right now they are all distinct because I believe that they need to be, because that’s kind of what I’m getting at. I like the distinction amongst us all. I like that we all operate in the same way, we all create our selves, but we all create ourselves differently. That’s why they’re different, I don’t want them to be the same. It might be nice if there was this period where I was working on the same person in many different forms. That’s exciting, I’m just not there yet.
BG: What else do you think is behind this work, and where might you move forward with it? Where are your interests right now?
ST: I’m thinking about how weird realism is and how dangerous it is to get stuck in it, for me. And I think that’s why I like the abstract parts of the paintings. I’m hoping to move further out of realism. The portraits are dangerous for me, because the more I do them the more demanding of realism I’ve become. The more I’m like, “Let’s try this. Have you ever painted fur? Let’s try fur” and those are interesting questions, but I’m hoping that it changes from that to bigger questions that aren’t about realism. I want it to be freed up. I went to the Picasso show last summer, at the Gagosian Gallery in NY, and it was a mind-blower. I thought they were so awesome, so loose, and the thing that was also really interesting about the show is that they would put the title up with the date on which he made them. I didn’t notice it at first, but one would say September 14th, and the one next to it would say September 15th, and that’s so great. He’s somebody that I’ve been thinking about a lot for his facility to sit inside of realism, he was a tremendous draftsman, but he was interested in these new forms and I just hope that I can get interested in new forms. I think that being stuck in abstraction is as strangely limiting. Who wants to be stuck?