STORM THARP x TODD HAYNES
STORM THARP x TODD HAYNES
The artist Storm Tharp and celebrated filmmaker Todd Haynes (Safe, Velvet Goldmine, Carol) are longtime friends and trusted colleagues. In an exclusive excerpt from the forthcoming book Storm Tharp, VERS, Haynes assumes the role of interviewer to dig deep into Tharp's practice and inspirations.
There’s so much to talk about, Storm. Maybe we should return to something we’ve just touched on before—the connections between your portrait-based figurative work, your sculptural works, and the large scale monoprints.
The portrait-making happened at a time when I didn’t question my work like I do now. When I was making large portraits on paper [Dream Dave (2011); Miss Cloud (2010)]—I hadn’t yet fully understood the complicated relationship that artists have with their creative facilities. In other words, my talents as a draftsman were honed, but I didn’t realize that through them I could deceive myself. Betray myself.
Being a kid who knew how to draw well, I was aware that any good that came my way was because of that talent. It’s the ticket that got me into college, got me my first gallery, etc. It’s the one thing I have always done, but I had to teach myself that drawing well was a habit meant to be broken.
And so with those inky portraits, I found a method through which I couldn’t control the outcome. The chaotic beauty of how the ink bled through water was so enticing. Figuring out how to not draw was liberating for me. But as I painted more of the portraits, I learned how they came into being. I interfered; and the trick of facility started to show itself.
So when you say “the trick of facility,” you also mean the trap of facility—when skill becomes indentured to mastery. Not to say that there aren’t elements of pleasure involved in such skill; these are elements one can’t easily dismiss. Pleasure in repeating patterns, pleasure in command and rendering—and every time you exercise these, you’re learning about materials, figuration, and representation. But if that pleasure starts to feel limiting, or overdetermined; if you’re not discovering and touching something else, it becomes circular. You have to do something more aggressive with it.
Exactly right. It makes me think of John Singer Sargent, who in his day was criticized for wasting his talent on portraits of rich people. But there’s enough distance between his time and our time that when I view his facility and mastery, I’m just blown away. I’m not concerned so much about the subject. It all seems glorious, and I’m grateful regardless of what he chose to paint.
And you look closely at Sargent’s strokes, and there’s an element of freedom in them that captures representational life so remarkably well. The works have an understanding of paint and form and color that is so assured it seems abstract on a certain level. He’s so connected to the paint, and he knows what to do with it.
It’s truly sublime.
There are masters where you feel their labor—and that’s fine—and there are masters where you don’t, and I don’t feel anything but liberation when I’m with Sargent’s work.
Me too. There are parts of a career which are dedicated to learning and skill, and you do what’s required to develop your facility; it may not need to be broken, but it does need to be pushed. You have to learn something else from it. With the ink portraits, I learned to let the materials define the work and determine its nature. This led me to the work I’ve been making over the past year . With the big monoprints I figured out a way to take my hand out of the vibe, almost like an onlooker rather than an author. It allowed me to remain interested. Involved. Those prints from the Ma’at Mons exhibition, for example, they were totally determined by the printing process. The press did the work. I set it up and pulled the trigger. The rest is kind of magic.
Well, you were learning a whole new methodology. Every example that we’re talking about—from the most rigorous, prescribed, and facility-driven work, to the work that is abstracted through the press—your body is still engaged in it, and there’s an element of the body in all of it. That’s something I’d like to talk more about, because the body crosses very patrolled divisions between things that we like to call “representational art” and “abstract art,” which generate different kinds of reactions, identifications, and expectations in the viewer.
But in your portraits, there’s something really interesting in the way you assign different roles to different methods, or histories—how you work with the ink and the water, and then develop their interactions with elements of style and design. There are patterns that evoke clothing and frame faces and bodies; they become textiles. You talk about your very conscious interest in flower arranging and ikebana, and the whole idea of the arrangement.
It was a simple matter to choose a physique for him, for she possessed in her secret,
lonely-girl’s imagination, for her nights’ pleasure, a stock of thighs, arms, torsos,
faces, hair, teeth, necks, and knees, and she knew how to assemble them so as to make
of them a live man to whom she loaned a soul—which was always the same …
—Jean Genet, Our Lady of the Flowers, 1943
This Genet quote is about the arrangement of bodies, and I feel like that’s a through-line in your sculpture, and in your portraiture, where you are creating parts within a whole that require different kinds of practice, styles, and references. You’re playing with the contrast between depth and surface. I want to hear more about that—about arrangements—and putting them together.
Difficult question. In a forest, there’s a proportion and relationship between size and texture; it’s like a playground for the imagination. It makes me think about how children want to live in trees.
For me, proportion is about a curiosity and delight with things large and small, and the awkward yet gorgeous relationship between them. When you start thinking about ikebana, it’s taking a natural thing, isolating it, and recontextualizing it. Glorifying it. Allowing it new meaning. Bonsai is another wonderful example: a gigantic, ancient tree that is only sixteen inches tall.
I’m digging deep here. But that’s the way my eyes see things. I’ve always imagined myself interacting with shifting proportions. And as you get older you become more aware of your body and other people’s bodies—the shape of a forearm or the back of a knee, or the length of a neck, or the slope of a shoulder—again, proportions. It may not make sense, but that is where abstraction lives for me.
You’re saying something that I think is true for many artists who gravitate between representational and non-representational work, which is that they start to dissolve rigid, literal, and linguistic boundaries. It’s like the way we apply meaning to one thing and non-meaning to another, or music to one and language to another. It starts to feel like an arbitrary imposition, almost like we’re forcing these distinctions, when really, in nature, and in desire, and in the real, organic world that we live in and imagine, all of these things exist at once. And when your physical hands are working in any of these forms, there’s a strange way you feel that perhaps the processes required to render one versus another might have more similarities than differences.
That’s completely true. And this is something I didn’t have a strong opinion about until just a few years ago. I think this just came from embarrassment, or guilt that I hadn’t been rigorous enough in the pursuit of my work, or in the defense of my work, or perhaps even in the breadth of my interests—like what I was painting wasn’t challenging enough or something.
How can that be true when your love for very different kinds of art, fashion, and popular culture reflect this very diversity?
I have knowledge of what’s possible in the world of art-making, and yet I make what I make. I sometimes can’t quite come to terms with—
—the difference between them. I feel like there are some artists—and I don’t think you fall into this category—who have a purely conceptual idea of what they’re doing, and they tame or control their facility to achieve it. And the work comes purely from a cognitive idea. There are probably artists that fit this category, from minimalism or from various periods in art, that you and I both totally dig, and we even find something beyond the cognitive in their work, something really visceral, organic, gorgeous, and alive, even if the way they achieve it is through a very rigorous practice.
Maybe Agnes Martin is an example of somebody who’s very disciplined with such a patterned method of practice—but then there’s something almost spiritual about the results, which may or may not be what she was aiming for. But I feel like you have always been intensely attentive to your process: wanting it to feel like there’s something authentic happening for you, no matter how formal the work is. I just feel like there have been times when—and I identify with this too—you’re working out of facility; you’re like, “Oh, I can do this, I can render, I can make this look like this and I can do this well.” And then you start to mistrust it; it starts to feel like you’re producing a reward for yourself that’s already gained a value in the world, and you’re not discovering something new in the materiality of the work. I’ve known different phases of your work; I’ve seen you introduce something that is not super controlled into your process, and then something starts to drive you, like in the large portraits where the accident of the ink and the water create something almost more three-dimensional and realistic—a weirder, truer face.
It is true! On more than one occasion I have had strangers ask me if what they were seeing was somehow photographic.
Right! I’ve totally seen that in your drawings.
I see it as well. But how could it be? It’s so not photographic.
They really do resemble a photograph that’s been blown up. You both see it as real, and don’t see it as real at the same time. And there’s something about the range of densities in the intense blacks created by the physics of water and ink—things that you just can’t produce by hand that happen by themselves, almost like they gave birth to themselves.
That is what kept me making them. When they were fun to make, there was magic. This relates back to Sargent’s work; the right mark in the right color in the right part of a composition becomes a sort of miracle. There was something with my earlier portraits where I could add the lightest touch and suddenly they would come completely alive. So then it became emotional. And I began to invest in making characters.
In a way, the portraits really were being generated out of chaos, and then as you found their specificity, or subjects, you would start to dress them and give them a habitat of some kind. There would be some way that they were anchored to the world, and at a certain point you would decide this is who this is. And then you would add elements from different visual languages—so there was a real frisson through the identity and rigor of the clothes or the textiles, or the hair or the jewelry. You socialized your subjects and the portraits, in a way.
They feel old to me sometimes. They’re hard for me to see now.
Oh God, they’re so beautiful, Storm, come on! I mean, there is tension in them, but I feel like they need that. That’s how they become acculturated or something, how they become bound—as people are bound, in my opinion, by society, identity, language, you know, pain. We’re bound, we’re not free. So the portraits have the tension of being socialized subjects, yet they gave birth to themselves on some level. Do you see your portraits as other people?
Oh, always. Always. There’s a lot of me in everything, and our mutual friend Jon Raymond would say that they all look like me.
[Laughs.] Yeah, we’ve had that conversation.
Like the portrait Jodie Jill (2009). At the Whitney (Whitney Biennial, 2010), some fella who I didn’t know was like, “So what, is that a cross between Jodie Foster and Jill Clayburgh?” And I was like, “Yes.” [Laughs.] It was amazing that he figured it out.