Torey Thornton’s paintings are massive and optically gripping. Biomorphic shapes meet angular geometric blocks of color, resulting in forms that border on incoherence. Either his paintings refuse to look like anything at all, or what they look like keeps shifting the longer you stare at them. More often they do both at once.
Blurring the lines between pure abstraction and recognizable form coupled with high-keyed colors, it is no surprise why the young artist is garnering so much attention in the art market. But are these works doing anything new?
“Torey Thornton: Sir Veil” on view in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, is the artist’s first solo museum exhibition. The show features seven paintings on wood panel and one work on paper, all quite large in scale. Thornton is an emerging artist, having received his BFA from The Cooper Union in 2012.
The works in the show employ vivid color and shapes that oscillate between pure abstraction and more narrative-based figuration. The exhibit’s catalog describes a few of Thornton’s works: “Unexpected combinations of shapes and colors, scale and perspective, will often suggest recognizable motifs — such as a tomato, a hard-boiled egg, or yellow lines on black asphalt — while others remain more abstruse.” This made references to “Can My Jewel Collection Cause Hearing Impediment And Lack Of Taste” (2016), “Dear Clifford Rocket, Don’t You Want A Home” (2016) and “First Cynthia” (2014), respectively.
Thornton employs a variety of interesting strategies to achieve his compositions including attaching found objects and slats of wood directly to the surfaces of his paintings. The effect, such as in “Crop In Plain View” (2015-16), is optically very intriguing. In the case of this piece, the painting is covered in yellow, green and black painterly stripes.
Affixed to the surface are slats of wood painted in light blue and arranged in an off-center “x” shape. The hard-edge lines of the cross literally jut off the painting’s surface, creating tangible depth between the more expressive brushstrokes of the stripes beneath. Optically, there is something interesting that holds in all of Thornton’s work.
However, included in the catalog was a brief description of an encounter with Thornton in his studio. “Thornton was breaking all the rules, and it was working,” it read. This is quite a polemic statement, but it doesn’t match with the art in the exhibition. Thornton paints with non-traditional materials, his works seem to both eschew and embrace figuration and abstraction simultaneously, and he often attaches non-art objects directly onto his paintings. But is this breaking the rules?
In many ways, the works conform quite traditionally to the rules of painting: the supports were all primarily rectangular in shape, brushstrokes indicate the authorial hand of the artist, and the paintings’ scales fit ideally into a museum gallery setting.
Thornton’s work, filled with optical intrigue and play, provides a very accessible (albeit formalist) entry into contemporary art. The problem with Thornton’s work, in this case, might be a curatorial one. By positioning his work as attempting to break all the rules despite the fact that most (if not all) the rules of painting have already been broken leaves one to wonder what is so profound about Thornton's paintings.
The accompanying catalog references how Thornton’s art evokes artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Jean Arp and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Those artists, however, already undid with painting the conventions Thornton is apparently trying to break with in his own work. “Sir Veil,” in that light, comes across as derivative and fairly conventional.
What: “Torey Thornton: Sir Veil”
When: Through May 29
Where: Albright-Knox Gallery, 1285 Elmwood Ave.