A conversation between David Humphrey and Tom Burckhardt


David: I love paintings that are at war with themselves. And I think that your paintings, in this respect, fold self-conflict into the level of the materials. Your supports, the “canvases,” are really cast multiples whose original is hidden. It suggests to me that the support is a stand-in for the self—a mobile and inventive self that performs on a stage of endlessly uniform copies.

Tom: Yeah, I think that the cast support acts in a bunch of different ways. I have the conceptual underpinning of the multiple, questioning and undermining the uniqueness of the painting, and then I try to go for an honesty and integrity with the images. Can I have those impulses coexist but not actually agree and reconcile with each other? I think of the supports as clones, or the “nature” that interacts with “nurture” to form an individual human persona. Additional painting gestures and imagery develop like spokes away from that hub. It gives me a license to do whatever I want and try to find the broadest possible sense of imagery and approach. I feel like they’re rooted in this central replicant self. I like the fact that the cast plastic is the most modern, common thing in the world, and yet I’ve coupled it with this ridiculously elite procedure of painting.

David: I like the idea that your genetic model of the original canvas serves as an Adam figure, the one from whom all were begotten. It’s the original Tom, or maybe the Ur-Tom. Does the surface texture, reproduced from the original, somehow generate what happens later? Does your imagery evolve in response to the ghost presence of the original surface?

Tom: No, I feel it skates above the subterranean. In other words, the support is an absurd finger pointing at me, reminding me always of the fact that painting is something that I love, but is ridiculous, anachronistic, and useless. It touches on the tradition of doubt in modern painting—out of New York School painting. I really love that era but I can’t be one of those painters in my contemporary context. I like the fact that rather than it be a psychological element or an attitude or a cloud hovering above the maker, that it becomes somehow embodied in the support. The works are cast plastic but I think of them as cast doubt, skeptical objects. They question themselves, though I’m unsure how evident that is for the viewer. I’m fascinated with questions of cynicism, belief, and integrity in art making in general. I like the idea that I could start from a place of cynicism and then try to see if I can throw my heart into it and establish integrity from there. It’s a longer and more interesting journey than starting with something that already has integrity. It’s important to me that I feel like nobody else would be so ridiculously stupid to do this. I get to be really proud of owning that little zone. But I’ve also been making some “normal” paintings on canvas to see how my imagery can develop independently of the cast supports. They look quite a lot alike, but the canvasses seem a bit lighter on their feet, even though they are much larger.

David: I get the sense that your family of images develops from a process of editing, adjusting and removing, but that you frequently arrive at hybrids of architecture and living bodies. There’s, of course, the ghost of your body having made it, registered in the mark-making, but then there are also the loose, baggy forms that intersect with the geometry and the four-sided rectangle of the original support.

Tom: Yeah. The way that the paintings get to completion is a surprise, especially if they have figurative elements that appear like apparitions at the last moment. It seems like a strange position to have about figuration, to have it suddenly show up at the end. There is a primary image-making hook we have in our brain, this need to construct a face out of abstract, unintended visual bits—what’s known as pareidolia. I don’t know where my images really come from or what they’re supposed to represent except that they walk a line between figuration and abstraction. It’s an oscillation between destruction and assertion. There is a lot of a kind of ego-killing editing that needs to happen for me to feel happy with them. There are things that grow out of an automatic writing-type response that start things off, and then I try to jump back into them at various stages without a lot of consideration or analysis. It can be very hand-motor-memory. Then I can do something that is a type of destructive-creative impulse—an approach in which something new comes out of that destruction, which happens a little faster than my rational mind, if I’m lucky.

David: At some point I assume you accept the image and groom it into a state of finish. Or do you just arrive at the place of finish without having to fuss with it?

Tom: I think I have a natural facility that I try to employ without getting too caught up in the pride of it. I do things that if I were to critically step back I’d say, “That’s not such a smart idea,” or, “That’s not such a formally interesting idea.” I just try to go ahead and do it anyway. Sometimes it looks horrible, but then with an editing move, or by painting parts out, or by clipping or cutting the edge in a collagist sense, I can suddenly snap some sort of focus into the work without having too much prideful intent dragging it down. Within my world of the painting studio, I’m pretty comfortable with being dissatisfied with what I’m doing for long stretches of time because I have a long-term faith that the situation will pay off in the end, even though it can be hard on my ego in the meantime.

David: Dots become an atmospheric condition in one painting, while in another they become a decorative wall pattern or a weirdly mechanized star-scape. A swooping gesture becomes a landscape in one painting and a zoomorphic entity in another. I guess you have faith that these operations will create an associative turbulence that’s engaging.

Tom: I think so. The dots are often a common device across many of the works. The idea of Pop Abstraction, say in the work of Nicholas Krushenick, has been in my brain as a connecting thread. But my dot fields are kind of wonky, and correspond to the plane of the painting surface to nail down an area or field. Those grounds are often added later than the central bits, and they flip back and forth the figure/ground dynamic. A lot of my work has a collage sensibility. I enjoy the friction of different things being put together, things that should not live together but which by declaring them together become a fait accompli. This creates an awkward tension that I like. I think that the work ethic idea is something that is important to these works. I’m not interested in knowing beforehand what the image will be and then figuring out the best way to execute it. That would be an efficient way to get somewhere quickly, but I’m after a rather old-fashioned earn-your-way-there journey. I love being in the studio painting, and hope that comes across in the works as generosity and joy. To shorten that enjoyment is not what I’m after.

                                 -From exhibition catalog for AKA Incognito, Tibor De Nagy gallery NYC, NY, May 2015