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Storm Tharp: Arrangement in Flesh Color and Black

Text by Stephanie Snyder

A Plazm web-exclusive, in honor of Storm Tharp's exhibit September 2008 at Galerie Bertrand & Gruner, Geneva, Switzerland.

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“In a sense art is a morbid overgrowth of functions which lie deep in nature. It is the essence of art to be artificial. But it is its perfection to return to nature, remaining art. In short art is the education of nature.” —Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947), Adventures of Ideas

Cream Puff

All pastry, like all paint, begins as a watery paste, the mannered conjugation of opposites. Substances moist and arid assimilated under duress—transformed, nay, reconstituted in methodologies of persistence—they emerge as something else entirely. In becoming a unique substrate, each paste—whatever cream puff or color—is exported in the mannerisms of its maker, through experimentation and repetition, in response to the properties and interactions of its parts. Eventually, such interactions demand remembrance—to be catalogued and imitated as will and necessity dictate. And over time, such mannerisms become recipes—lists of thought—styles of painting.

For a brief period of time, each cream puff exists in a perfect, singular state, exciting the world around it. But remaining undigested, it rots. Cream Puff is thus, out of necessity, eaten, masticated back to paste, swaddled and investigated by the mouth, its former distinctiveness abstracted into theory. In the throes of consumption, the cream puff becomes base. Such is the cream puff’s destruction, a revisionist history mimicking the original labor of its maker as it is paraded through the body, commingling with the body along the way, and then expended as waste. No matter the beauty and expertise of the gestures that brought it into being, the cream puff leaves a disinterested legacy. Pastry, such as it is, shames the body. Art shames life to achieve greatness.

Arrangement in Flesh Color and Black
Contemporaneously, nine paintings by Portland, Oregon artist Storm Tharp—rag paper, mineral pigments, water; wet, dry, scrubbed—meticulously rendered. Tharp’s Arrangement continues the artist’s lengthy investigation into the relationship between human nature and artfulness, form and intention. Tharp’s love and study of Japanese Ukiyo-e, Aestheticism, and Romanticism have shaped this study, and the artist’s artistic philosophy. Highly aestheticized, ephemeral beings populate Tharp’s most recent paintings. Their bodies are stylized yet vague. Their adornments are as precise and elegant as flowers. “Nakedness it could be said, obscures rather than reveals, and garments define rather than hide.”1 It is precisely through their exacting garments that we begin to decode Tharp’s subjects. But let us return for a moment, back to an historical image. Arrangement in Flesh Color and Black—an 1883 oil painting by James Abbott McNeill Whistler (American, 1834–1903). It’s 1883, London. Whistler and Théodore Duret (1838–1927), French art critic and collector—champion and friend of Manet and Courbet—enjoy an intimate dinner at a London restaurant after visiting a painting exhibition. As recounted by Duret, the conversation turns to the subject of portraiture. The two friends conclude that men should be painted, contrary to the current vogue, in their own clothes, represented socially. In particular, the two friends marvel over the fact that no one has ever painted a portrait of a gentleman in his evening attire. And Whistler decides—on the spot—to paint such a portrait of Duret, instructing him to visit his Tite Street studio the following week with his best suit and a pink domino. (A domino is a hooded cape worn with a short black mask that covers the eyes—fancy masquerade garb.) Whistler’s Arrangement in Flesh Color and Black is painted over many sittings; Whistler works quickly, forgoing preparatory underpainting.

Just Wait
Whistler’s portrait of Duret is composed of creamy, sensual swaths of pink and stark flourishes of red, receding into deep, grayed blacks. Duret’s right hand holds a top hat, resting casually against his right thigh. No formal gestures here. In his left hand—cloaked in a fine, white glove—Duret holds a woman’s fan. The interior of the fan, turned toward the viewer, reveals a shock of poppy red. Over Duret’s left arm the domino falls loosely, somewhat irregularly, like a bed sheet thrown over the back of a chair. Duret’s glove, fan and cloak, wound together intimately, coalesce into the presence of a separate being … an alternate Duret, the other side of the other Duret, of the man standing there. Duret’s satin-gloved hand transforms, magically, before our eyes, into a woman’s—gently sheltered against the dark void of his suit, the fan’s red folds resembling a … self touching self, clinging to self like an eyelid in the morning … like the undulating tones of Cream Puff’s skin.

White Woods

Like Whistler’s Arrangement in Flesh Color and Black, Tharp’s Arrangement in Flesh Color and Black thrusts the viewer into a deeply psychological realm. The cryptic, near-hallucinogenic portraits suggest the unstable formalism of the soul’s arrangements—the fictive, transformative nature of being—alternately secret, masked and revealed. Tharp’s personages unfurl against stark white grounds (some of them rubbed into suede-like expanses, or slit and pasted back together) that polish and brighten their eccentricities. Curling and bursting into color, these beings are rare botanical specimens cultivated in a synaesthetic hothouse in which music and fashion, art and literature blossom into beautiful but unnatural creatures—prophets of a monstrous future, caught in a mysterious new rapture. They are, in the words of Oscar Wilde, creatures of the “total art” of theater, uniquely and profoundly artificial. Tharp eschews realism for illusion’s mutable truths, spinning nature off its axis in favor of a rigorous formalism. The tightly ordered structure of each image is the story of each character; the portraits unfold in shocking turns as the viewer reads through each carefully painted passage, encountering, for instance, Cream Puff’s cotillion of pink hair rising above a barely visible forehead, or Boom’s undulating bone structure, echoing Oscar Wilde’s words: “Life holds the mirror up to Art, and either reproduces some strange type imagined by painter or sculptor, or realizes in fact what has been dreamed in fiction.” Tharp’s dramatis personae do not reflect the world; they grow, like roots in soil, à rebours.

Rope (After Schjerfbeck)
No matter how disturbing the personage, no matter how horrible the implication of a particular portrait’s narrative, each element of a portrait is given the same love and attention. In the words of Japanese art historian Laura Mueller writing on the work of Natori Shunsen, “The overall effect gives the impression that the figure has been deformed by his own evil intentions.” Sometimes this reaches absurd climaxes, as in Rope, for instance, where the most beautifully rendered rope imaginable, held threateningly in the hand of a beautiful woman painted in shadow, seems subjugated, ultimately, to rings of flamboyant lavender pom-poms. Every innate deformation is wrestled and formalized toward a mysterious resolution, beyond what is even visible in the painting. One can feel the physics of the work tugging at the mind, especially in the figures’ bodies. In these portraits, gravity, temperature, and chance are as important to Tharp’s painting process as gouache and colored pencil. Not surprisingly, the paintings begin face-up on the studio table. Washes of sumi-e ink mixed with water are applied in measured stages. They gently collide and swirl against one another, settling into dark pools and light expanses. The material, and arguably spiritual, negotiation of these two essential substances, ink and water, is the alchemical genesis of the work. Slowly, after the tides of ink have subsided and the spirit of each character has emerged, a languid reflection of itself, Tharp delves into the story of each character. Take the plaid shirt represented in Rope, which possesses a particular importance as it adorns a likeness of the artist. This humble fabric, brought to North America by Scottish trappers (originally as tartan of course), is here a symbol of the rugged outdoorsman (the artist), and of survival. Tharp has painted his plaid shirt with so much exacting care that one would think it was silk; the shirt’s pattern is magically rewoven in the act of painting. Plaid will never look the same again.

Tharp does not work from life; he works from art. And other works of art are embedded within these portraits, sometimes many. Sometimes, Tharp’s art historical, literary, and anthropological inspirations are easy to spot. But often they are too obscure to ascertain without assistance. For instance, it’s hard not to see the influence of Soviet propaganda in Gun, or the ubiquitous influence of Japanese actor portraits by artists such as Natori Shunsen (1886–1960) and Toshusai Sharaku (1770–1895). But it isn’t obvious how much Tharp loves Phillip Guston’s “hooded” self-portraits, or Nabokov. Once Tharp grabs hold of a discrete inspiration it is set free to bloom within the work, unhinged, like everything else, by chance. In the words of the artist from a recent interview, “They become who they are through mistake and hesitation. They drift into identity. They could be anybody, but they are not.” And they are no one. They are myths.

The theatricality of Tharp’s portraits is quietly reinforced by the marginalia trailing above and below each completed image. As charming as Whistler’s “butterfly” signature, Tharp’s “practice marks” appear alternately furtive and assured. Let’s imagine for a minute a fantastical universe in which Tharp’s characters possess consciousness. Would they then know they are surrounded by the artist’s hesitations, by preliminary versions of the patterns, words, and colors that constitute their very essence? Tharp seats us backstage within the work, guiding us into incidental moments, cultivating our desire for drama by deflecting our attention to lesser concerns.

Waking Bear
“Facts are not merely finding a footing-place in history, but they are usurping the domain of Fancy, and have invaded the Kingdom of Romance. Their chilling touch is over everything. They are vulgarizing mankind.”2 In 1891 Oscar Wilde published this thought in a volume entitled Intentions, in the essay “The Decay of Lying.” Wilde, a close friend and colleague of Whistler’s—the only person alive wittier than Wilde, according to Wilde—believed that realism, and commercialism, were destroying art and society. The Aesthetic Movement, of which both Wilde and Whistler were a part, sought to reintroduce the aesthetic lie into truth, the art back into life. Wilde’s ultimate expression of this position is found in his story The Picture of Dorian Gray. In this work, a beautiful young man—Dorian Gray—magically and accidentally transfers his soul into a recently painted portrait of himself given to him by a young painter. Dorian’s debaucheries and misdeeds age the portrait. His likeness becomes grotesque, but his actual face and body remain unscathed. Eventually, Dorian goes mad with shame and stabs the painting, which kills him. Dorian murders himself by murdering a work of art. Wilde’s story expresses his belief that to imbue art with the burden of human morality is to corrupt and damage it. Storm Tharp’s work also raises such philosophical questions, and presents us with an arena for the consideration of human nature and aesthetics. When Tharp’s characters appear warped and strange, we are moved to ask ourselves what has caused such aberrations and eccentricities. Our questions necessarily reflect our own flaws; but they also reveal the refinement and artistry of Tharp’s aesthetic universe.

Stephanie Snyder is the Curator and Director of the Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery
Reed College, Portland, Oregon

1 Jack Hay, The Body Invisible in Chinese Art, quoted in Laura Mueller, Strong Women, Beautiful Men, Japanese Portrait Prints from the Toledo Museum of Art, Netherlands: Hotei Publishing, 2005.

2 Oscar Wilde, “The Decay of Lying” in The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, Great Britain: Collins, 1976