Torey Thornton isn’t yet a household name, but he’s well on his way.
The 26-year-old Brooklyn-based artist has been steadily building buzz in the art world for his polyglot paintings, which distill a broad range of influences from street graffiti to art history into alluring compositions of form and color that are proving irresistible to collectors.
After a series of increasingly popular group exhibits and a strong showing at last year’s Armory Show in New York City, Thornton will receive his first solo exhibition in an American museum starting Feb. 27 in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.
“Torey Thornton: Sir Veil,” organized by Albright-Knox curator Holly E. Hughes, will feature a compact selection of seven Thornton paintings and one work on paper going back to 2013 – which represents the bulk of the young artist’s professional career. He and Hughes will speak about his work at 7:15 p.m. Feb. 26 in the gallery’s auditorium as part of the Emerging Voices in Contemporary Art series.
Thrornton, speaking from New York City, characterized his work as an attempt to bring more people into contact with contemporary art by imbuing his work with enough visual intrigue and allure to draw in art world outsiders.
“I want everybody to be able to get something from the work,” he said. “I’ve been looking at a lot more minimalist and conceptual artists. But at the end of the day I want my family to be able to come to the show and get something from the work and not just be completely excluded, besides reading a piece of paper.”
Thornton’s current style, in the midst of a rapid evolution from assemblage to pure paint, emerged from an early interest in collage.
“I’ve always been interested in collage in some way or another. From there I started working with certain found materials that I find interesting or add a certain texture to the work,” Thornton said. “It was based on this sort of distortion or disruption that it adds to the painting, that separates it from the hand. You’re doing a certain thing, and you glue this material over it. It’s almost like a censorship, a disruption or break in the painting.”
In his more recent paintings, Thornton is applying those “disruptions” not with found material, but with paint. He often brings multiple styles into a single painting: shapes pulled from Ellsworth Kelly’s hard-edged abstraction serve as canvases-within-a-canvas for more amorphous objects, which sit on backgrounds of flat color. His objects straddle the boundary between representation and abstraction. Is that a sprouting onion or a psychic representation of impossible anguish? Thornton wants you to stare and wonder for a while, and then to draw your own conclusions.
And for Thornton, unlike a rash of other contemporary painters, the work is less about making specific references to art history and calculated departures from it, than in developing a broader vocabulary that draws inspiration from far outside the art world.
“I think I pull from actual life more so than I pull from art. A lot of art is either really critical of art history, or making fun of it, or riffing off of it, or trying to build from it,” he said. “I’m taking the things I’m interested in, all in all, and then trying to blend them together and put them inside of these pictures. Whether that’s signage or graphic design on the street, or colors, or whatever.”
Though fitting himself and his work into the narrative of art history may not be his chief concern, it’s not lost on Thornton that he’ll be exhibiting alongside many of his early influences like Willem de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg and Kelly.
“When I was younger I was obsessed with Abstract Expressionists,” he said. “It’s insane to try to find my own space within painting, but to also come back full circle and be in this house that has represented so many of the artists that I grew up really looking at and thinking about.”
What: “Torey Thornton: Sir Veil”
When: Feb. 27 through May 29
Where: Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 1285 Elmwood Ave.
Admission: $5 to $12