April 10, 2013

WANG: What’s a Storm Tharp?

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No one goes to the Johnson. I know this because I go to the Johnson, and the only people I see fall into three categories: townie toddlers, touring pre-frosh accompanied by parents, and students required by their arts-related classes. Admittedly, I used to belong in the last category, but after having had sketched the museum interiors on numerous occasions, I’ve come to appreciate this remarkable structure of Brutalist architecture. The I.M. Pei-designed Johnson houses some really tremendous works — and tremendous for the States, not just Ithaca. With over 35,000 pieces in its permanent collection, two windows from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Martin House and works by Stiglitz, O’Keefe and Rauschenberg, it’s a wonder that anytime anyone mentions the Johnson, it’s only to call it an eyesore.

Okay, okay, it kind of looks like an old school sewing machine. And yes, those highway medians placed at the entrance are a bitch to dodge (that’s the point—it’s part of the installation!). And those Leo Villareal LEDs above the sculpture court are cool. But if you’ve run into me any time in the last three months, you’ve probably heard an effusive exhortation to catch Storm Tharp’s Third Person exhibition before it ends. Well, now it has ended. It was over on Sunday. You missed it. You missed everything.

The only response I received from my vehement beseeching was, “What’s a Storm Tharp?” Like it’s some waterproof covering to protect valuables during hurricanes, or something. In fact, Storm Tharp is a Portland-based mixed media artist, and he just so happens to have the coolest made-up-sounding name ever to not be made-up (since Benedict Cumberbatch). Maybe this all means nothing to you, but Tharp ’92 remains the youngest alumnus to hold a monographic show at the Johnson, and it’s obvious why. Possessing equal parts technical facility and conceptual continuity, Storm Tharp was most likely that kid in your studio to whom everything came easy. You know, the one who breezed through crits unscathed, who could shit prettier than you could ever draw. The one you loathed out of pure envy.

Even his notebooks and studio ephemera, which formed part of the Third Person exhibition, exemplified this exasperating, effortless quality. With sketchbooks full of quick studies that seem so easily masterful, just a single-stroke line drawing of kimono folds seemed remarkably adroit, and each drawing, hastily sketched, seemed fit to be framed.

The extent of his technical prowess is under total scrutiny in Third Person’s exhibit of large format portraits. With pieces scaling in at 53 by 42 inches, composed primarily of ink and gouache, Third Person refines Tharp’s signature style of grotesque portraiture, in equal parts inspired by old master European portraits and Chinese ink drawings. The maelstrom of these two polar influences results in the complex nature of Storm Tharp’s paintings, where the dichotomy between the traditionally stiff portrait format and loose ink dispersal, the immaculate technical detail of the subject’s dress and the haphazard, blooming ease of the subject’s flesh, strikes just the right balance between risk and rarefied control.

To create these portraits, such as The Duke of Albuquerque or Boom, Storm Tharp draws contours on paper with water and then applies mineral ink randomly across the wet surface to create bleeding pigments. From these intricate tributaries of ink and black nebulous splotches, Tharp retroactively fits the figures’ facial features, creating the illusion of clownish and woolly countenances. Thus, the figures’ features seem to slip in and out of focus — like a broken camera, a foggy memory, or even a ghostly spirit, waffling between fantasy and reality. In The Duke of Albuquerque, there is a sort of special balance between the cancerous ugliness of the Duke’s flesh and the painstaking precision of the Duke’s dress, but it is exactly this balance that generates Tharp’s rare visual interest. The former without the latter (or vice versa), such as a piece entirely amorphous or a piece entirely methodical, would only serve to overwhelm the viewer with its predictability.

But still, the scrupulous exactness of each portrait subject’s attire is notable — a throwback to Tharp’s dalliance with fashion and a testament to his expertise in the medium. The sharp lines, perfect squares, and application of pattern lend a sense of reason or geometry to the lower half of the portraits, but when adjacently placed beside the vague bleeding blemishes, they only serve to mystify. As in The Duke of Albuquerque, would a man with a two-foot afro likely dress like a stuffy Classics professor? Or as in Einstein, would a man with purple coiffure wear a kimono? It’s these types of questions that Tharp invites the viewer to ask, allowing us to dream up the strange narratives that such a peculiar character may carry.

But what are we questioning exactly? It’s difficult to determine, but perhaps this is what Storm Tharp wants — the hard-to-define in-between quality of it all, of character, of existence. The overall effect is jarring. Either the viewer is hallucinatory, creating these amorphous forms in his or her mind, or the subject is some shape-shifting, otherworldly being, haunting the canvas. What is the figure expressing about himself? In which realm does he occupy? Does he even exist? Though the facts of each figure’s origins are never quite clear, what is plainly evident is our constant quest to obtain them.

And so, in the end, the viewer must complete the narrative of how this character came to be. Here, Storm Tharp succeeds in rousing the viewer to contemplate the qualities of an elusive character and a bizarre existence not only unto the The Duke of Albuquerque or Boom or Einstein but also unto themselves. And this, beyond the downright enviable technical genius of Storm Tharp, beyond the rich cultural references to Hiroshige prints and Nabokov, is the true value of Third Person. For a few months, this is what made walking into the Johnson feel like you were ducking into the Met for some solace from the bustling chaos of the city. This held that meditative contemplation that only a museum can provide. This is what you missed. This is Storm Tharp.

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Original Author: Alice Wang