Natalie Westbrook, Founding Editor, Lookie-Lookie
Britton Tolliver's California hillside studio/residence feels slightly derived from a Kubrickian dream. Upstairs, amber light pours into a living space that conjures sentiments of late-1960s California rock; however, downstairs, the other worldly glow of amorphous forms, paint pours and vivid textures dance about his large paintings, filling the first floor studio with a striking energy.
The illusion of shallow space contained in Tolliver's newest paintings evokes an enthralling game of tug-of-war between figure and ground. Wild color and dancing gestural forms, all vibrantly alive, wrestle one another, pushing forward towards the viewer. The forms nestle tangled within the confines of an intricate lattice— the glue that reigns disparate elements into a complex unity. Each composition employs the modernist grid, which remains always parallel to the picture plane and never tilted into perspectival space. Like a chain link fence or map coordinates, the artist's grid keeps things in check in an otherwise restless space. The rigidity of the wood panel surface reinforces the notion of flatness, buried as it may be under countless layers of thickly worked paint. Vigorous and pushy, the brash palette dominates, and Tolliver's sensibility with color and heavy handling somehow conjure the unapologetic paintings of British-born Malcolm Morley during his disfavored Neo-Expressionist period. Tolliver’s strict use of the grid is almost militant, and this too summons for me Morley’s preoccupation with battleships, soldiers and aircrafts. In an earlier conversation with Tolliver, he mentioned to me that he came to art while he was young and serving time in military prison— a narrative which also coincidently echoes that of Morley who began to paint during a three year prison sentence in England for burglary before his parole officer arranged for art schools to view his work.
Post military, Tolliver studied at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Detroit, MI where he received his MFA in 2006, and he subsequently has exhibited widely while relocating to his current home in California. In his recent compositions, gestures emerge like peeled and torn layers of wheatpaste poster advertisements, the organic edges disrupting the continuity of the underlying geometric network. Despite the sophisticated layering and plasmic forms, Tolliver makes no apology for the plasticity of the acrylic paint. This contrast between organic and geometric, natural and man-made offer rich tension within the work; volatile life suspended within a rigid complex system. The scale of the forms relative to the support in these works echo that of Georges Braque's Cubist still lifes circa 1910, yet instead of small tangible objects, Tolliver's shape-shifting glowing fragments seem to allude to urban landscape. Nonetheless, he chooses a vertical format for this series of works, and I therefore greet them not simply as landscapes but as portraits of landscapes, often suggestive of aerial views, perhaps a fleeting moment and snapshot composed from miles above. Portraits with personality, with charisma, authority and tremendous complexity.
I recently had the honor of talking with Tolliver about his newest paintings, his recent show at Left Field Gallery, and how his work has developed over time.
Natalie Westbrook: You’ve lived in Kingsport, TN, Detroit, MI and you’re currently living and working in Los Angeles, CA. How has your studio practice evolved in these distinct places, and can you talk about your formative years as an artist?
Britton Tolliver: I went to a very small undergraduate program in Tennessee. It is called East Tennessee State University. I went there from 1999-2004. This was a crucial time for me due to the internet just becoming very popular. While my undergraduate professors were busy holding onto their 1970's art heroes, I was busy finding out what artists were making in Istanbul and Budapest. I was mesmerized by the unlimited interpretations of creative expression all over the world in the contemporary realm. I was a very sheltered artist in terms of actual traveling, but I was very well travelled in my mind and in the virtual realm. Although, this would pose a problem for me in the near future, because I might have been exposed to what the world was making, but not how the work felt, meaning material wise. While in Detroit, MI and Kingsport, TN, I felt like the smallest person in the world screaming from the tallest mountain and all I would hear was echoes. Not a real nurturing environment to try to create a dialogue with an artistic community. In Los Angeles, I feel like I have landed in an area that is fertile with history but simultaneously blossoming with the future.
NW: In your recent two person show with Shara Hughes at Left Field Gallery, your abstractions were intermixed on the walls with her paintings of hillsides and waterfalls. The pairing evoked in her work a potential relationship to geometric abstraction, and in your work a provocative yet plausible relationship to landscape. How did you see your work in the context of the show, and how are you thinking about landscape if at all?
BT: The pairing came out of palette and temperature. Shara and I both paint with a certain vivaciousness and electricity. I believe that pairing was fantastic. I have really enjoyed Shara's work for some time now, and I was stoked when this opportunity came about. Even though my paintings are born in a non-representational realm, they are always informed by life. One cannot make paintings in a vacuum, and cannot turn the world off either.
NW: Where do the compositions, forms or imagery in your work originate then?
BT: I would say my present compositions are a combination of embedded science fiction code, a fascination with structure, and a sprinkle of intuition. My compositions are a push and pull of trial and error and additive/subtractive. The viewer is encouraged to dissect the layers, and metaphorically I want their eyes to be confused as to whether I am the architect or the destroyer.
NW: To act as both 'architect' and 'destroyer' your process of bringing a painting into being sounds especially physical and arduous. Even a digital image of your work is telling of the obvious layers of textures built up and mined within a painting. Can you tell us about your process?
BT: My process is not something that was taught to me— it is something that is eradicated and built upon for many years. I start on a panel, and start as loosely as possible. I work the gessoed surface with very fluid acrylic paint. I haven't used a brush in years. I am just pushing the paint with various scrapers of various sizes. I work on all the panels flat. I am super rough with the handling. My floor is covered in many inches of paint that have been flung from the paintings through trial and error. Once a composition begins to emerge, the paint in areas will have quite a raised surface (super tactile, like a wound). Then I will methodically run a grid down the surface using thin automotive tape. The grid is only acting as a scrim or filter for the background painting to emerge through. The grid will be poured very quickly and haphazardly. Since the work is spawned out of geometric abstraction, I want the painting to be as loose as possible, so as not to be confused with the other "tapers". I will tear the grid out using a wet tear. Meaning I will excavate the tape, tearing through the inches of wet paint while wet, not waiting for the paint to dry, hence, making the painting feel very loose, even though the painting is made through many layers of tedious masking. When the painting is finished, it is very topographical, like a new uncharted land of sorts.
NW: When you just described the raised surface as a ‘wound’, I began to think of the paint as literal skin, and suddenly the architectural and landscape references become about the structure of the human body for me. Your process is at once wild, sensual and experimental, while simultaneously intricate, tedious and planned. Through the construction of the layers and ‘excavation' of the tape, you’re every bit an archeologist or even surgeon in the studio as much as you are architect and destroyer. Given your process, I’m curious to know if you work on several paintings at a time typically, and how long does it take to complete a single work?
BT: I work on 3-4 paintings at a time, all of course are on sawhorses. I walk from one work to the next. Mainly I try to figure out color pairings. Color is a very loaded subject for me. I always have a tendency to go towards the “garish," so I use a color chart to make sure my intuition is suitable. A painting roughly takes about 4-6 weeks, but in some cases, I have made a painting, exhibited that painting, and then felt that the painting’s life is no longer needed, and I will keep various parts of that finished painting, and totally make another painting on it. Meaning, I am not precious or sentimental. Kind of like the punk band, the Minutemen, "We Jam Econo".
NW: What is the relationship between music and your work? You have an extensive vinyl collection, and you’re Instagram account is covered with 1960s popular music references. Can you talk about your musical influences?
BT: Hmmmmm.... It all started with psychedelia. Once psychedelia influenced my mind (Grateful Dead, Moby Grape, Jimi Hendrix Experience, Beach Boys) in high school, it was your classic matchup; eager spongelike mind and lots of LSD. The geometric patterns that one sees while they are on the influence of these potent chemicals are forever changing. Meaning, when I was first introduced to geometric abstraction without having an art background, I immediately felt comfortable in this language because of so many lucid acid trips. Once a journeyman always a journeyman. Music is the source of everything for me. It's the eyes, ears, and the heart of my life. Without music, I would be lost.
Britton Tolliver has recently exhibited in NO BAD DAYS with Shara Hughes at Left Field Gallery in San Luis Obispo, CA, and End of Semester at BBQLA in LA, both shows in 2016. Solo exhibitions include Durden and Ray, Kinkead Contemporary, and Meliksetian | Briggs Gallery in Los Angeles, CA; HilgerBROTKunsthalle, Vienna, Austria; Joshua Liner Gallery, New York, NY; and GOLDEN in Chicago, IL. Born in Kingsport, TN, Tolliver received his BFA from East Tennessee State University, and his MFA from the Cranbrook Academy of Art.
For more of Britton Tolliver’s work, visit www.brittontolliver.com
All images courtesy Britton Tolliver