February 10, 2013

We Are What We Wear: An Interview with Storm Tharp ’92

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Storm Tharp ’92 is in illustrious company — Gordon Matta-Clark and James Siena, among others — as the youngest Cornell alumnus to hold a monographic show at the Johnson Museum of Art. Tharp returned to Cornell last week to paint a mural with fine art students and talk about his solo exhibition, Third Person, which features his stirring ink and gouache portraits (until Apr. 7 at the Johnson) and his serendipitously assembled fabric sculptures which grapple with “gratitude and forgiveness” (until Feb. 22 at Milstein Gallery). The Sun spoke to Tharp about “good” art, his myriad influences (which span Cornell professors to Japanese printmakers) and why people are obsessed with fashion.

The Sun: How did it feel to be back at Cornell? You’ve said that preparing for the show has been an intense and hectic experience.

Storm Tharp:  … What I meant to say about the “intense and hectic” had more to do specifically with the conception and production of the wall mural in Milstein Hall.  I am not a muralist. However, I am a self-prescribed perfectionist, and I came to understand quite immediately that I had been too ambitious in my vision for that wall. I found myself in a hectic worry to get that wall accomplished to my liking.  It was very challenging, but also very rewarding.

… Returning to Cornell after 21 years was psychically intense.  My life is busy and I was not exactly prepared for the emotional impact of seeing this beautiful campus covered in snow.  It’s truly a majestic location.

Sun: How did the Milstein collaboration come about, and how was it like working with students?

S.T.: Well, first of all, Milstein Hall is just incredible.  The architecture students that get to work in that facility really have it made, and I think it’s very appropriate … to provide a context for design students to share in what is possible and is a reflection of their study …

The Milstein gallery was offered to me as a twin location for my show at the museum.  I loved this idea.  It really grew out of programming between Dean [Kent] Kleinman, professors in the art department and curatorial and educational programming at the Johnson … I felt very lucky to have been invited to share my work in that context.

Working with students was wonderful. They were helpful, kept me company and had good heads on their shoulders.  I worked most with senior thesis students and a super talented grad student. It was great.  It’s difficult for me to delegate duties to get my work done. That will never be easy. But thank God I had help at my disposal — the project would have never been accomplished otherwise.

Sun: What were some crucial lessons that you learned at Cornell?

S.T.: The crucial lessons were always the same. Whether it was drawing with Zevi Blum, or painting with Elanore Mikus, or photography with Jean Locey or intaglio printing with Elisabeth Meyer — they all encouraged me to let go.  Elanore was specifically diligent in breaking my habits of “good” painting.  I realize now, I had no idea what “good” was. In fact, “good” is no longer a word that I associate with art making in any regard.

The same occurred in many years of working with Jean Locey.  I would hand in my contact sheets; pictures I really connected with — and Jean consistently encouraged me to print the frames that made no sense to me.  I have always suffered from a pre-existing notion of what I wanted.  My Cornell education helped break me of that tendency and taught me to accept the proposition of unknowing.  There is more potential for surprise and enlightenment in this regard.

That said, my work is still tightly buttoned.  I have to work hard to let go. It’s like athleticism: rigid perfection is nothing without grace and buoyancy.

Sun: Your exhibit at the Johnson is entitled “Third Person,” and your works have very compelling, literary titles. Love Nothing More, for example, reads like poetry. To borrow a quote from the Whitney Museum, you paint “strange and beautiful” people. What inspires these narratives? I’m tempted to say that you paint like Vladimir Nabokov writes.

S.T.: Oh God. If only I could paint like Nabokov writes. If that were the case, I would be the greatest painter on the planet.  It’s a good question though. Who does paint like Nabokov writes? That might be impossible. Perhaps, the entire career of Gerhard Richter can find itself in three of my favorite novels by Nabokov.  It’s easier to think about who paints like John Cheever writes.  Or who paints like Wallace Stevens writes poetry. I don’t think about these things in this shape exactly but I have made works inspired by all of those writers. If you’re familiar with Lolita, you will recall that great moment when The Enchanted Hunters is later re-framed as The Hunted Enchanters within the narrative.  God, I love that.

But let me be clear:  I should read a lot more! I am currently catching up on a whole syllabus of required reading that I never got around to. Most of it is theory-based, which I reject like cough syrup, but it nonetheless is quite helpful.

Sun: You have a wide range of influences, from 1970s American cinema to the work of Flemish painter Helene Schjerfbeck. Why do you continually return to Japanese portrait prints?

S.T.: I was going to suggest that perhaps Hiroshige or Utamaro are equivalent to Nabokov.  But I’m afraid they are not … However, I can say that the flatness of what is depicted is fundamentally influential.  Take the fabrics and the prints and the folds in an Utamaro portrait — and you will find one of the greatest sources of inspiration in my work. I continuously look to him for help.  I steal from the masters of Japanese printmaking all the time.  The bokashi fade of a Hiroshige background is as important to me.  The demarcation of heaven and earth in a colorful fade is both realistic and metaphoric.  There is not a single landscape painter on this planet who has influenced me more. And I won’t even get started on Japanese erotica — Shunga.  Sociologically, it is phenomenal.  I have never seen anything like it.  If only the U.S. had a sexual awakening in this regard. But alas, no.

Sun: In your portraits there’s an emphasis on the subjects’ clothes, which tend to be very finely rendered and tactile, notably in Sweater (Rabbit) (2010) and Blue Bird (2010). In contrast, the subjects’ faces are often very airily rendered. What motivates this contrast? Are we what we wear? You’ve mentioned that you once wanted to be a fashion designer — why is fashion so important to you?

S.T.: Why is it important to anyone?  I am fascinated by the idea that we wake up and select items that represent (an idea) of ourselves to everyone that we come into contact with.  So yeah, a grand peacock of a person is fun to dissect and learn about, but equally I am interested a character who goes out of his or her way to fight fashion and norms of dress.  That person is as much of a peacock.  Wearing your clothing follows much of the same politics as making your art.

I am aware of this quote by the art historian, Jack Hay — that has resonated with me for some time: “Nakedness, it could be said, obscures rather than reveals, and garments define rather than hide.

Original Author: Daveen Koh