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“Memory, Change, Mortality” photo

This month sees publication of our newest print issue, Hobart #14. As such, and as we have done to accompany our last few print issues, we are devoting the entire month to various "bonus materials" -- photo essays, alternate endings, drawings, extra short fictions, interviews, & more!

Below is an interview with Hobart 14 cover artist, Hollis Brown Thornton, conducted by Christopher Higgs, through whose tumblr we were actually first introduced to Thornton's work.

“Memory, Change, Mortality” -- Hollis Brown Thornton in Conversation with Christopher Higgs

Christopher Higgs: You & I are about the same age, you from 1976 and me from 1978, which means we share many of the same cultural references. For example, I vividly remember watching the Challenger explode, playing Starship's We Built This City cassette over and over on my boombox, watching The Goonies on VHS so many times the tape went wonky.  These memories are what first strike me when I look at your work.  It's as though I feel a connection with you, through your work, based on the recognition that we grew up in a world that seems so foreign today.  No internet, no cell phones, no laptop computers back then.  I wonder if we might begin our conversation there.  What is it about the past that compels you to look there for your subject matter?

Hollis Brown Thornton: It is funny, because I'm listening to Arcade High's album The Art of Youth.  It is Dreamwave/Synthwave/Outrun Electro (no one really knows what to call the genre), but it is basically synth based mostly instrumental music, almost like an 80s movie soundtrack.  I absolutely love this genre (Betamaxx, College, Futurecop!, Lazerhawk, Miami Nights 1984, Mitch Murder, The Outrunners, Symmetry to name a few others) and when I listen to it I always wonder what it is exactly that attracts me to the past.  And I don't have a specific answer.  I don't consider myself overly nostalgic.  I typically take things from the past (from pop culture to family photos) and somehow break those images down.  I erase the identities in family photos.  I either draw VHS tapes with permanent markers or reproduce them as pixelated images.  My two overall themes are memory and change.  So the memories typically come from my youth.  I remember in the early 90s when I was in high school, I thought the 80s were so uncool and terrible and I would never look back fondly on that time, but it really was a special time.  Bright colors.  Max Headroom.  The Goonies.  The NES and digital technology in the early phases.  I think using memory and change as my main themes, I'm really concerned with mortality.  Not concern or fear or death, but that human element of knowing that we are limited.  I think using personal memories rather than a generic idea of memory makes the mortality association more subtle or balanced.


CH: Using memory and change as your focal points seems to grant your pop culture iconography a sense of gravity that distinguishes it from the Pop Art of the 60s, to my mind. Whereas artists like Warhol or Lichtenstein, for example, seem often times to have been obsessed with documenting their present, you choose to document your past.  Also, as their Pop work seems fixated on examining the potentiality of the surface, yours seems to desire more, or perhaps something else.  Do you consider any particular affinities or antagonisms between your work and the Pop Art of the past to be significant?  Or, maybe I'm off base making those comparisons.  If so, are there other artists whose work you consider more in conversation with your own?  

HBT: I never thought of myself as Pop Art until recently.  My college interest in painting developed out of an interest in 50s Abstract Expressionists and their ideas on the sublime.  That still fascinates me, the idea of trying to replicate this almost undefinable emotion in a tangible object.  Eventually I discovered Cy Twombly's work and he remains by far my favorite artist and, I think ultimately, my biggest influence.  That said, 60s Pop Art is often historically explained as a reaction to 50s Abstract Expressionism, just as I believe my work developed out of my personal association with Twombly.  

The 60s Pop Artists I think most about are probably Wesselmann, Segal, Ruscha and Hockney.  Both Wesselmann and Segal have such tangible qualities.  They both incorporate sculpture, but I think it goes beyond that.  The chunkiness of the plaster castings with Segal and the assemblages of Wesselmann, they both manage to look handmade and cohesive at the same time.  Hockney has a few images that stand out as being so incredibly iconic (his swimming pools, a few portraits, lawn sprinklers), almost like a 60s version of Lost in Translation.  And Ruscha, he has just had an incredible career in general.  Most artists have a period or few pieces I like, but from then until now, he has been both diverse and consistently good.

Currently, I'd have to say Takashi Murakami's recent paintings are my main interest.  We (actually his studio) both use several similar techniques (taped off areas, flat colors, sanding to expose multiple layers), so from the perspective of how they are constructed, his paintings absolutely fascinate me.   A lot of the ideas involved in my initial interest in the 50s Abstract Expressionism attempts at the sublime are in his paintings, using contemporary and familiar imagery.  They have that ability to confound when I look at them and try to figure out how they were put together.  That is a great feeling, personally, to be unable to categorize or put boundaries on something.


CH: I want to ask you about your process and mediums (acrylic paintings, pigment transfers, and marker drawings, etc.) but first I'm dying to hear more about your interest in Twombly's work.  I'm conflicted about his stuff.  On the one hand, I want to love it; on the other hand, I consistently feel like I'm missing something crucial, which keeps me at arm's length.  Can you help me see his work through your eyes?  What makes him your favorite artist, and in what ways do you feel like your work has been influenced by his?

HBT: Twombly's work took a while to grow on me.  There was a book from his 1994 MoMA retrospective that I would regularly check out from the library.  The cover had one of his paintings (Leda and the Swan, 1962) and I was mostly indifferent to the work at first.  But a month down the road, I checked the book out again.  Then again.  And so on.  I knew his name, because at the time I was a huge Basquiat fan and he had mentioned him a few times as an influence, so this probably gave me the benefit of the doubt on his work.  But again, his work took a while to grow personally.

Twombly's mature flat work I break up into two parts, the first being the 1960s-early 2000s scribble paintings.  I get how these are a bit difficult, since they seem incomplete, in progress, or incoherent.  I like that they are full of action and potential, while also maintaining restraint.  I think it is a balance in the aggressiveness of the mark making and the solitude of the predominant white.  Personally, these paintings illustrate that fundamental struggle in making something, the decisions you make to either keep or replace.  I like how his work documents that struggle.  In a number of ways, I focus on flux and change in my own work.  I think I'm attracted to this concept in general, so I like being able to see how the paintings evolve in layers.  Often times, painting in general ends up losing a lot of energy in the process of refinement, but Twombly's work maintains that internal history.

As for his late work, from his Lepanto paintings and especially the work he did the few years before his death, I think it has a much broader appeal.  The use of bright colors, simple compositions, really focusing on his basic strengths, it strips down the visual complexity of his earlier work.  His Rose paintings and Camino Real paintings, I think they still have the energy of the earlier work but are much easier on the eyes, due to their straightforward compositions.  Here are a few (click the images, then VIEW IMAGES link on the left):



CH: That helps me understand Twombly's work in a different (and much more interesting and engaging) light, thank you, especially in terms of the tensions you describe between aggression & solitude, and retention & replacement.  I feel like those tensions are visible, when put in that frame of mind, upon looking at a piece of yours such as "Far Above the Atmosphere" or "The Fortress of Solitude." Both of those pieces are acrylic on canvas, but you also often use permanent marker on paper, and pigment transfer on paper.  Could you say a little about these three approaches, how you came to them, what attracts you to them, and perhaps how you decide which to use for a given work?  I'm especially interested in the pigment transfer, which sounds strange and fascinating. 

HBT: My work usually begins on the computer, such as manipulating family photographs or drawing pixel images.  I'm able to make all of the compositional and color decisions before I make any physical object.  Sometimes I work in a sketchbook, but the majority is computer.  The first step in making an actual work is usually a pigment transfer.  The transfers basically move the ink of a photocopy to another surface, giving me the ability to reproduce anything I do on the computer as a tangible object.  To make a pigment transfer, you basically make a photocopy, put that photocopy face down in wet acrylic paint, let dry, wet the photocopy paper (after it has completely dried), and finally scrub that paper off with a brush.  The result is the pigment from the photocopy bound to the acrylic paint.  It is a good first step, getting the work off a computer screen.  Then, depending on the image, I'll continue with either a marker drawing or painting.  

The marker drawings initially developed out of the desire to use something that didn't have the associations with fine art, something that would have a more playful mentality.  I picked up a set of Crayola markers about 5 years ago, mainly to use for sketches, and they evolved to the very intricate and time consuming VHS/Atari/Cassette drawings I've been making today.  The decision to use the permanent markers or paint partially comes out of image complexity, the fact that my painting process is not friendly to fine detail.  A great example is the writing on the VHS tapes.

I can reproduce that in paint, but the effect is different.  The markers also have an inherent association with youth, so they work well with things from the past.  On a technical level, it is appealing that I cannot make mistakes, that every decision I make in regards to color or line quality is in many cases final, stamina and precision are the inherent challenges of the marker drawings.

Painting is typically the ultimate goal.  I usually try to make images that are strong enough to reproduce on a large scale canvas, so I ultimately decide after the transfer process whether I want to continue.  Each technique has something on the production level that I enjoy.  With the pigment transfers, the removal of the paper from the photocopy, that scrubbing as well as the control of the scrubbing, being aware of possible air bubbles, as well as controlling the removal of the pigment from the original image.  With the marker drawings, as I mentioned, I enjoy the importance of precision.  With the painting, the scale and the amount of physical work involved with moving the object around, sanding and scrubbing the surface, taping areas off and cutting shapes with the x-acto knife, all the steps involved has an aspect of construction.  There is the idea that any object in the physical world is either in the state of construction or deterioration.  I think I try to illustrate that with the paintings.  And I never feel like they are finished until there is that balance of construction and order balanced with erosion and slow deterioration. 


CH: That's probably a perfect place to conclude, but I'd love to squeeze in one last question about books for the Hobart audience.  You mentioned the Twombly book that had a great impact on you.  I was wondering what other books might have been significant in your artistic development, be they artist books or any kind of books: poetry, fiction, nonfiction, etc.?

HBT: The Fountainhead was a very big influence, which I read in my early 20s.  I'm not on board with a bit of Ayn Rand's philosophy, but the idea of the individual and the endless pursuit of a person's ideal, that had a huge impact.  When you start out as an artist, no one cares what you are doing, and in many ways it feels like a joke career. So that gave me a lot of the momentum in the early days. The Cantos of Ezra Pound is something I'll pick up every month or so.  I don't really get much tangible out of it, but it is always fascinating to read.  It is dynamic and overwhelming and really doesn't make much sense, but I like that.  Edmund Burke's A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful is probably my biggest reading influence.  It is a great and fairly simple contrast of Burke's ideas of the beautiful and sublime and, in my opinion, the best entry point to understanding the sublime as a possible aesthetic.



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image: Hollis Brown Thornton