'Pigeon (after Shunsen),' 2009
Ink, gouche and colored pencil on paper
581⁄2' x 421⁄4'
These are heady days for Storm Tharp. For starters, he has four mixed-media portraits—eccentric figuration in the lineage of Velázquez and Francis Bacon—in the 2010 Whitney Biennial (on view through May 30). He’s also preparing for solo gallery shows coming up this summer and fall. To top it off, he’s just turned 40, always a reflective milestone but especially so for Tharp, as interest in his quirkily elegant portraits has swelled. Those portraits—virtuosic études in ink, gouache, colored pencil, metallic leaf, and other media on paper—abound with wry references to cinema, pop culture, art history, literature, and queer iconography. Pointedly contemporary in the ways they overlay beauty and despair, they often depict flaming youth in glamorous clothes, with facial features verging on the grotesque: snout-like noses jutting at odd angles, eccentric hairdos in candy-corn colors, and ghoulish eyes that recall Count Orlok in F.W. Murnau’s “Nosferatu.” These characters, who look as if they’re en route from the funhouse to the madhouse, make for harrowing psychological studies. To behold them is to don a pair of psychic X-ray goggles and peer past their public façades into the conflict, or even depravity, they harbor within. There is, as curator and arts writer Stephanie Snyder has pointed out, an element of Dorian Gray at play here.
Tharp says that as he’s painting these characters, he constantly frets whether he’s rendering them too flatteringly or unflatteringly: “If she’s becoming too beautiful or he’s becoming too frightening, I change it and change it ‘til they’re the perfect balance. I have to keep tweaking them ‘til they portray both the best and worst characteristics at the same time.”
While the portraits are the artist’s most popular works—and the only aspect of his practice spotlighted at the Whitney—they are far from his only series. The native Oregonian, Cornell graduate, and former art director at powerhouse advertising firm Wieden + Kennedy, has in the last two years begun exploring color fields of gorgeous liquid transparency. “I think of them,” he offers, “as more about light than pigment.” One of these paintings, Enterlaughing, is a stunning expanse of subtly graded pink, evoking the chromatic and chronological feeling of the dawn. Another, Sissy and Shelley, stacks two rectangles of chocolate and plum hues, its title obliquely referencing the stars (Spacek and Duvall) of Robert Altman’s “3 Women.” The works, which indulge the artist’s fascination with minimalism, offer him an opportunity to loosen his arm with broad, sweeping gestures, a much-needed counterbalance to the fastidious colored-pencil detailing and precise manipulations of water and ink that characterize his portraits. Other bodies of work include text-based pieces, sculpture, and room-engulfing installations such as The Dresser (SFTKBDP), exhibited at PDX Contemporary Art.
In addition to PDX, where he shows this June, Tharp is represented by Galerie Bertrand & Gruner in Geneva and Nicole Klagsbrun in New York, where he will exhibit in November. With his broad interests and restless creative mind, he is eager to explore fresh avenues of inquiry while continuing to develop existing series. How to balance those dual paths of exploration and success, especially in light of heightened demand for his portraits following their exposure at the Whitney, is a quandary, albeit an enviable one. “I know there’s a bridge between them,” Tharp remarks of his portraits and his color-field abstractions. “I just need to discover what it is!”
Storm Tharp’s work can be seen at PDX Gallery in Portland, OR, from June 1-26, 2010.