“The Second Visit”, 2015, oil on canvas, 50″ x 54″
MW Capacity has published dozens of interviews with artists at this point. There are a few that have a special resonance to me–the words of artists that act as a push or a spark or a stimulant. This interview is one of those. So much of what’s exciting and frustrating and funny about painting comes through in this interview. The same is true for Tim Tozer’s paintings. It’s clear this is an artist who finds it easy to love paint. An artist who enjoys all that gloopy, colorful eventfulness that can be transformed into a meaningful encounter. In the artist’s words: “It seems impossible to carry all that in every mark, but there seems no point to painting at all unless there’s an honest attempt to try something nearly impossible.”
Tim Tozer’s exhibit The Visit is on view at Groveland Gallery in Minneapolis until October 17, 2015.
Please give our readers a little bit of information about yourself (upbringing, education, location, news, etc.):
I grew up in Portsmouth, a city on the South coast of England. I did my undergraduate degree in Belfast, and my graduate degree at the New York Academy of Art. I’ve lived in the US ever since, although I’m still a British citizen. Currently, I live in Minneapolis and teach at the Univeristy of Wiscosin-Stout.
Many of us don’t grow up with painting and art as part of our daily life, our routes into the fine arts are circuitous. Was that your experience? How and when did you say, ‘I’m going to do this’?
I was lucky enough to grow up in a family that took the arts seriously, and in a town not too far from London. My mother (an art teacher and artist) took me there frequently to see shows, and it was her influence that led me to painting. In 1984, the Hayward Gallery held what I think was Lucian Freud’s first retrospective, and seeing that was a decisive moment. My culture in the UK also served me well; there were documentaries on artists frequently on British television, as well as challenging films and TV series. I feel as though many of my students in the Mid West are not as well served by their culture.
What is a day in the studio like for you?
I work in my converted garage, so although the separation between church and state isn’t as clean as I’d like, the physical separation from the house allows me to be in there for several consecutive hours without other things intruding. It also means I can grab small chunks of time in there to look at work or take a poke at it; after having children, one has to be adaptable. An ideal studio day starts early, coffee in hand, and goes until the kids get home.
Tim Tozer, “Rain Elsewhere”, 2014, acrylic on canvas, 22″ x 24″
Tell us about one useful thing you were taught or told.
At the NYAA, I had a great teacher, Brian Jermuysk. He taught me to be practical, economic and deliberate in painting, as well as to deal with experiences that were specific to me. He included on a syllabus a quote which I’ll have to paraphrase; the gist was that ‘as you paint form, you compose the rectangle’. It opened a trapdoor for me; it seemed such a simple but ambitious goal – and a continually moving target. When you think about ‘form’ as not only the things you paint and how you paint them, but how they relate to your point in history, what they say of your experiences and what they embody as subject matter, and the act of composing as an expression and exploration of the world you allow yourself to build in a painting, the goal of painting as a process is a fusion of all things simultaneously. It seems impossible to carry all that in every mark, but there seems no point to painting at all unless there’s an honest attempt to try something nearly impossible.
Tell us about one useful thing you learned for yourself
The opposite of anything any teacher tells you about art is equally true, especially if I’m your teacher. Also, one has to constantly revise one’s assumptions about one’s work, especially if this can lead to some sort of identity crisis.
“Untitled”, 2015, acrylic on canvas, 20″ x 30″
What is the hard part of painting for you?
What is the fun part?
What are you getting better at?
Leaving something alone when it’s done, although I’m not getting much better at it.
Are you an improviser?
Yes, but only because I don’t have the discipline to stick to my initial plan.
“Traitor’s Gate”, 2013, acrylic on canvas, 20″ x 20″
Your figurative paintings–the bathers–often show people out in changing weather. Some even have titles, like “The Visit”, that suggest temporary or transient states. Your abstract paintings show pentimento, layers of re-working, or a quality of palimpsest. The paintings telegraph the fact that as objects, they’ve got some history, have gone through a lot of changes, seem somewhat vulnerable to change even in their final state. Is that fair assessment?
I like that – “the paintings…seem somewhat vulnerable to change even in their final state.” However, when a painting is resolved, I feel as though I’ve painted myself out of it – that it’s almost as if someone else painted it. If it works (which is certainly not always), this point feels inevitable and unstable at the same time, so I’m glad that comes across. And you’re right about various states of transience in the work – in the light, the actions of the figures and the surface of the paint.
If I haven’t already put too many words in your mouth, how do you see the different types of painting you’ve made, addressing that theme differently?
I look for ways to resolve the paintings; this changes the image as I progress, and so the meaning shifts. I don’t think of themes per se, but I know I gravitate towards spaces that don’t feel too fixed in any specific location, are not grand in a sublime or picturesque way and contain a sense of the mundane; the people are usually performing anonymous, self-contained activities. There is something of this in my abstract work too, although I’m the one performing the activities in the mundane space.
Change, which happens over time, is a state that paintings that’s still somewhat off limits for painting. It’s not an inherent quality of the artwork, the way it is in video or performance. What’s the attraction or challenge of a subject like that?
I’m excited about making paintings that accept all the limitations of paint and surface, and simultaneously try to make this stuff transform into qualities that paintings can only imply; movement, time, volume, light, etc. Of course time exists very clearly in painting, although in the opposite way to music or film; it’s telescoped into the structure of the work, and expands into its constituent elements only after the whole has been experienced. This is why it feels as though building forms and composing the painting are inseparable activities, and when those intentions part ways or lose touch, the whole thing collapses. When it all colludes to support the overall impetus of the painting, it’s done; this can sometimes happen in a surprisingly short amount of time, which makes the solution hard to trust. I think from early admiration of artists like Freud, Auerbach and Giacometti, I find it easier to trust something that comes from sustained struggle, although of course this is as arbitrary as any a priori standard one brings to bear.
“Navigator”, 2013, acrylic on canvas, 20″ x 20″
No one who thinks much about painting these days believes in any kind of real antagonism between representational and non-representational art. Still, for working artists, the shift from one mode to the other acts as a motivation, even giving a sense of urgency to what’s happening in the studio. How does the change between these types of painting work for you?
I made a decision for a solo show I had in 2011 to make abstract paintings only, and this felt like a completely different undertaking than the figurative work. I had to construct a language for myself all over again, and it wasn’t quick or easy. I thought abstraction would open up worlds denied to me by the specifics of making representational images, but I had to give up so much to get anywhere: I discovered that I’m certainly a painter for whom freedom without structure is meaningless. In order to understand anything about what I was doing, I had to boil it down to two colors per painting; not a palette of two colors mixed to make a third, but two colors. Every decision – every mark, edge and manner of paint application – had to be questioned and tested for something. For authenticity? I’m still not sure. I think I wanted something inevitable and unpredictable at the same time, much as I had with the figurative work. However, after a session working on one of these paintings, I’d step outside into the sunlight and all the shapes and intervals around me would sing with potential. I drew more from observation then ever while I was working abstractly, simply because I could see clearly. Returning to figurative painting last year felt like a natural progression, although my next show (which is March 2017) will be abstract again, I think. Perhaps this is a cycle of binge and purge. I realize the double-sided paradigm of figurative/ abstract is irrelevant in a larger cultural context, but in my own practice this division has helped me move forward in some way.
“The Passengers”, 2015, oil on canvas, 54″ x 64″
As for the figurative paintings, are the bathers more interesting to you as bodies experienced as bodies, out in the sun and light or more as an art historical archetype that can be manipulated for the sake of a statement?
The baggage that comes with painting makes the figures archetypal anyway, whether I want them to be or not. When I first started making these paintings, I was excited to create figures moving outdoors in strong light, reduced to simple shapes amongst the simple shapes of their environment. The pictorial structures I could play with as a result were as exciting as painting the people; it felt like I was beginning to understand how the DNA of my work operated. It was also exciting to allude to all the painters who forged the archetype and used it to push painting into new territories – Cezanne, Matisse, Bonnard, De Kooning, etc. I love the heroic, progressive myth of Modernism, but I wanted to paint people who looked cold and pale and would – when thought about in terms of all the heavyweights I just mentioned – seem a little funny. However, there doesn’t seem to be any point in painting people unless you believe in their autonomy, and it seems unfair to these painted people to use them as pawns in a game of artistic references.
How important is accuracy in painting? What does the phrase ‘get it right’ mean for you?
I don’t think accuracy is a very interesting criterion to apply when looking at painting. There are certainly artists whose sense of truth bowls you over, but to describe their work as accurate seems pedantic. In my own work ‘getting it right’ tends to mean what I can get away with.
“May”, 2014, acrylic on canvas, 22″ x 24″
How important is authenticity?
Very, although I’m not sure what it is, exactly. I’ve thought about this word for a long time, but I’m not sure how to define it in terms of my own work. I hope if I were to see something inauthentic from my own hand, I would have the guts to reject it.
What are you looking lately? What are you listening to? What are you reading?
Double Rhythm, the collection of Jean Helion’s writings, is one of the best books any painter could read, and I’m rereading that while trying to finish H is for Hawk. I listened to a lot of Squeeze while I was making my most recent work, which is something I don’t really want to admit to. I also listened to The Clash a lot to make up for it. I look at too much painting online, and not enough in the flesh.
“The Ninth Day”, 2015, acrylic on canvas, 50″ x 54″
Everybody always asks artists and other creative types about these things. Is there anything else we should be asking you about, that’s relevant to your work right now? Do you ever see deer in your front yard, or where’s the best place for coffee around there, anything like that we should know about?
I have a very large spider living in my studio, which is terrifying. It’s now too big for me to capture and eject, and I won’t kill it; it’s spent a summer catching flies, which I hate far more than the spider, and deserves respect for its work. I try not to look at it, but I’m always aware of its presence, and the nagging discomfort this brings. I realize I’m sharing my space, and although I’d rather not, it seems important that I do for a while. There’s a painting in there somewhere.
Read more MW Capacity interviews here.
“Unfurnished Sky”, 2015, oil on canvas, 56″ x 60″