TONY SHORE: HARRY
ESSAY BY KERR HOUSTON
Fifteen years after I first encountered (during an open studio tour at Yale in the mid-1990s), Tony Shore’s paintings on velvet, I can still recall my immediate reactions. I remember feeling unsettled by what felt like a grave monumentality: a stoic desire to record and even commemorate an aspect of life in an East Coast city that I did not yet know well. I remember the dense, private blacks, which seemed to possess some of the active, Manichean energy of the shadows in Rembrandt’s etchings. And I remember thinking, too, that these images were something new in my experience: a combination of kitschy material and apparent sincerity that treated urban family life in a tone that was at once sympathetic and unromanticizing.
But if the paintings were new to me, they already bore a considerable history. When Tony arrived at Yale, in 1995, he had already been working on velvet for several years. And he had developed, in the process, a relatively consistent iconography, or set of interests. Where he had initially turned to velvet with the idea of painting images of the sorts of people who owned velvet paintings, he soon began to focus more broadly on the lives of working-class whites in post-industrial Baltimore, and on the spaces – modest dens in rowhouses; tiny backyards; eroded urban playgrounds – in which they passed much of their time. Most of his subjects, it’s important to note, are family members, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends. And most of them are not, as the Sun’s Glenn McNatt once noted, the sort of people who typically sit for painters. But here they are nonetheless, passing their days in shadowy simulacra of Morrell Park and Pigtown.
It would be too strong, perhaps, to say that these works memorialize their subjects. They don’t quite heroicize, either – but they do pay close, alert attention to the rote details, incidental moments, and social ties that characterize life in a section of Baltimore that is often overlooked or baldly stereotyped. Partly because of this patient attentiveness, Tony’s work began to attract consistent notice about a decade ago: a process that culminated in 2007, when he was selected as the second recipient of the Janet and Walter Sondheim Award. But if Tony’s paintings were about south Baltimore, in a general sense, they were often also about a single man. His father Harry, who worked for years as a loading dock shipping clerk for Seagram’s, was a consistent presence in Tony’s velvet paintings. He, too, was hardly lionized: his pot belly swells, he lights another smoke; he can seem distracted. But he is, at the very least, taken seriously. Linda Loman’s recollection of her husband in Death of a Salesman seems relevant here:
“I don’t say he’s a great man. Willie Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being… So attention must be paid.”
And now, two years after Harry’s death, it is, by anyone walking through the Pinkard Gallery.
One of the first things that you might notice in these paintings is their open-minded attitude towards art history (and, indeed, a glance at the books on a shelf in Tony’s studio, where a book on Norman Rockwell lies casually atop a study of Baroque art—implies a similar curiosity or interest in synthesis). Caravaggio’s work, certainly, offers a steady point of reference. One can sense that painter’s influence most obviously in Tony’s deep tenebrism and occasional violent subject matter, but also in the affecting juxtaposition of fraught details: the pairing of burning cigarette and intravenous tubing in Dialysis carries much of the force of the devastating twinning of lifeless hand and spotless linen in Caravaggio’s Entombment of Christ. The candlelit interiors of Georges de la Tour seem to have interested Tony as well. At the same time, however, his work also draws on more recent work in abstraction and photography. He once painted an image in which the field of black velvet was interrupted only by the slightest sliver of a scene, seen through a cracked door; the piece, he remarks, offered a variation on Barnet Newman’s zip paintings. The power of the confident geometry of the painter David Reed, for whom Tony once worked, is clear. And the staged and even uncanny aspect of some of his work strongly recalls the work of Gregory Crewdson, whom Tony came to know during his time at Yale. These are, in short, densely allusive paintings.
But such traces of influence aren’t merely random, or haphazard. Rather, comfortably familiar with the history of art, Tony explores precedents in a selective and intentional manner that allows him to craft a consistent tone and explore a recurring set of themes. Among other things, these paintings document the sheer frailty of the human body. Harry’s ample stomach, glowing tips of cigarettes, and a hospital bed quietly remind us of our own mortality—a point subtly furthered through the evocations of Caravaggio’s meditations on martyrdom and Newman’s staunch existentialism. In fact, I’m tempted to read several of these images as variations on vanitas paintings: that is, on those severely Protestant studies of skulls, rotting fruit, and wilting flowers that solemnly alerted seventeenth-century viewers to the brevity of life. In Tony’s paintings, as well, we can see the comforting but vacuous details of our own quotidian lives: a plastic watering can, or a Saucony sneaker. And at the same time, in the background we can always hear time’s winged chariot: the match in Alternator flares only temporarily, and in Something Happened, Tony’s mom and dad cannot hold their pose indefinitely.
Or can they? For even as we sense the impermanence of such motifs, it remains true nevertheless that Tony has also given them, in his paintings, a stable and extended life. A few weeks ago, he told me that one of his goals in painting such works was to preserve the richness of the idiosyncratic motifs and surfaces that become symbols of a time and of a clan. “No one else,” he notes, “is going to remember or preserve my family in that way. If I can stay true to the details, I can give them a permanence.” In a sense, then, Tony is as much documentarian as artist. Indeed, and perhaps relatedly, there is also an anthropological bent to such work. In recalling his time as an undergrad at MICA, Tony speaks of taking a humanities class that prompted him to view the behaviors of his own family and friends as essentially ritualistic. He thus became an observer of, as well as a participant in, life in south Baltimore, and was increasingly alert to the patterns, forms, and material details of that life. You can see this approach embodied in Steak and Onions, in which Harry is painted with all the dignity and reverent attentiveness of a priest at an altar. Or take the figures in At the Fire, who stand almost like sentinels, quietly immobile, riveted by the warm glow. I’m reminded of some of Edward Hopper’s figures, who are depicted in relatively ordinary moments—sitting on a motel bed, or attending to a gas pump—with a somber gravity. Even casual, unthinking gestures become evidence of something larger.
Given the central subject of this show, though, we might also read the paintings in a more specific light. There well as a participant in, life in south Baltimore, and was increasingly alert to the patterns, forms, and material details of that life. You can see this approach embodied in Steak and Onions, in which Harry is painted with all the dignity and reverent attentiveness of a priest at an altar. Or take the figures in At the Fire, who stand almost like sentinels, quietly immobile, riveted by the warm glow. I’m reminded of some of Edward Hopper’s figures, who are depicted in relatively ordinary moments—sitting on a motel bed, or attending to a gas pump—with a somber gravity. Even casual, unthinking gestures become evidence of something larger. Given the central subject of this show, though, we might also read the paintings in a more specific light. There is here, it seems to me, both a desire to memorialize Harry and an interest in examining the very processes of memorialization. Obviously, if you view the works in chronological order, you can watch Harry age: his face grows heavier; he suffers his first heart attack. But even as you watch Harry age, you’re also watching, as you move from painting to painting, Tony develop his skills as a painter. Even as the father’s body thus weakens, the son’s body of work grows stronger and more confident: better able to register, we might say, Harry’s specific presence.
And what is that presence? These works seem to imply, repeatedly, an almost casual physical accessibility that is complicated by an apparent psychological independence. Harry waits, in one image, for something we can’t see; in several others, he seems occupied by the thought of something that we can’t name. “He was there,” remembers Tony, “but always thinking about something else.” And so the process of remembering or memorializing Harry becomes complicated: there was always, it seems, something more to him than what could be seen, or recorded. A figural painting, in simplest terms, proposes to convey the painter’s sense of its subject. But the slight spatial inconsistencies and perspectival illogic in some of these paintings (most of which were based on photographs, which Tony enlarged, cut up, and used in combination) point to the way in which any image or any memory involves a creative process of reconstruction. We garnish, we embroider, we collage—and the result, in these paintings, is a process of memorialization that is at both invitingly realistic and self-consciously unreliable or insufficient.
When Tony first turned to velvet as a ground, he was largely interested in its stereotypical connotations as a kitschy material. But perhaps it is appropriate in other ways, too. Long before it gained its status as a kitschy material—think Elvis paintings, or airbrushed landscapes on motel walls—velvet was broadly seen as a cloth appropriate to nobility. Celebrated as a novelty in Harun al-Rashid’s Baghdad, velvet was eventually produced in several medieval centers, including Cairo, Lucca, and Genoa. The English king Richard III donned a long gown of purple velvet during his coronation ceremony, and by the 1700s the material had become generally accessible: velvet-lined coffins were relatively common, in fact, in Georgian London. The fact that one of the images in this show was displayed at Harry’s funeral thus feels appropriate, on several levels: velvet can extol and honor, even as it also invokes a world of plebian taste far from the refined elegance of court or museum.
Put differently, velvet collapses—and Tony’s paintings collapse—the distance between good and bad taste. Or, seen from another angle, they willingly participate in the high/low debate that occupied much of the art world in the late 1980s and early 1990s. And that makes sense: it was at that moment, after all, that Tony was moving from the haphazard streetscapes of Pigtown to the Gothic façades of New Haven. Such moves must have prompted questions about the importance of class, or socioeconomic status, as determinants of artistic taste. (Indeed, he vividly recalls the gulf between the comments he received, while at Yale, during structured critiques and during chats with construction workers on their way to their morning shift.) Can the world of camouflage pants, Natty Boh, and Venetian blinds co- exist with the white cube? Tony’s paintings indicate that it can—and they use velvet as a device by which such an awkward marriage can be arranged.
In a well-known essay written in 1939, the critic Clement Greenberg noted that Western culture in his day was characterized by a basic cultural bifurcation. “One and the same civilization,” he wrote, with the detachment of an ethnologist, “produces simultaneously two such different things as a poem by T.S. Eliot and a Tin Pin Alley song, or a painting by Braque and a Saturday Evening Post cover.” He went on to argue that there was a wide chasm between the products of the avant-garde (which were typically characterized by a self-consciousness and an interest in expression, rather than what was being expressed,) and kitsch, which he saw as a formulaic and mechanical vehicle for vicarious experience. A painting by Klee and a pulp novel were, in Greenberg’s view, almost completely irreconcilable: one offered genuine intellectual engagement and culture, while the other offered only an ersatz diversion. Tony’s paintings, however, can be seen as an attempt to heal that rift. Kitschy, no doubt, they are also self-consciously kitschy: they abstract kitsch, even as they embrace it.
And so, in the end, such paintings might be seen as an appropriate valediction in two senses. They clearly speak (in their material and their subject matter) of the unpretentious visual culture of the docks, even as they also evince a clear interest in the history of art. They are documents, in short, of the experiences of both Harry and Tony, of shipping clerk and art student. They are residues. At the same time, they are also, arguably, testimonies to a sense of loss that is still being processed; they are, arranged in this way, a eulogy. To Greenberg, kitsch seemed to offer its effects in a pre-processed manner: the viewer of such work has no work to do. Arranged before us, these images of Harry might initially seem to do something similar: to flatly insist that attention be paid. And yet they never wholly dictate the contours of that attention. Painting or magazine cover, Pigtown or white cube: regardless, these images imply that it may be enough to look, and to think, and to remember.
*This essay was originally published as a catalog essay produced by MICA, in conjunct with ‘Harry,’ a solo exhibition by MICA faculty member Tony Shore in the Pinkard Gallery. The exhibit ran from January 25 – March 17, 2013. It is reproduced here with the permission of MICA and the author.
Author Kerr Houston teaches art history and art criticism at MICA; he is also the author of An Introduction to Art Criticism (Pearson, 2013) and recent essays on Wafaa Bilal, Emily Jacir, and Candice Breitz.