An Interview with Artist Thornton Willis

September, 2013

 JK: In your next series, the Lattices, the structure is grid based.

TW: Yes, it’s a kind of trellis-like structure. Once again, I was working with vertical and horizontal crossing bands.

Conversion, oil on canvas, 246 x 178 cm
(97 x 70 in), 2008

I returned to the work that I began in the 1980s because I had more to say and explore in that vein. I had not exhausted my interest in vertical and horizontal lines that interact and interlace in a dynamic way.

Flash Back, oil on canvas, 211 x 155 cm
(83 x 61 in), 2008

Also, I was transitioning from acrylics to oil paint. I love oil paint—the paint, the mediums that allow me to vary the surfaces. I also wanted to add some interest along the edges of shapes.

Trellis in the Sun, oil on canvas, 155 x 86
cm (61 x 34 in), 2008
Blue Sky with Lattice, oil on canvas,
155 x 86 cm (61 x 34 in), 2008

I usually try to find balance in my paintings through asymmetry, but here I’m working with a more symmetrical type of balance, a more all-over, patterned composition.

Study in Red, Green and White, oil on
canvas, 30.5 x 23 cm (12 x 9 in), 2008
Three Gray Squares, oil on canvas,
30.5 x 23 cm (12 x 9 in), 2008

For me, a painting is an object, a special object. As such, how does the painter make it interesting without creating recessive space? After all, even a single line on a white canvas could allude to a foreground and a background. My answer is to load the painting up with color, line and form that take the eye around the canvas on a visual trip. The work is not fully predetermined, and I come to each work with an open mind. These are largely intuited colors and forms.

Gotham’s Rhythm, oil on canvas,
269 x 165 cm (106 x 65 in), 2008

JK: You stayed with right-angled work in the Steps series that followed, a reprise of earlier work. It’s hard not to think of the urban landscape when looking at them.

TW: I was thinking about the nature of the city quite a bit. I look at all the buildings—how can you avoid it when you live in New York City!

Gotham Towers, oil on canvas,
246 x 178 cm (97 x 70 in), 2009

I’m interested in the city’s development, how it’s changing, the juxtapositions of all this architecture, seeing tons of right angles everywhere. With this work, I tended to lock many of the shapes to the bottom of the canvas, but less so at the top, creating a sort of skyline.

Study #3, oil on canvas, 35.5 x 28 cm
(14 x 11 in), 2010
Study #2, oil on canvas,
35.5 x 28 cm (14 x 11 in), 2010

JK: In some of these paintings, the shapes are anchored to both the top and bottom of the canvas.

TW: In this series, I’m also playing with right-angled shapes. And I apply the paint in many layers. This gives the vertical columns in Transition strength. The dark lines could be taped to be hard edge, but I prefer the human touch, the hand holding the brush, which is never perfect, but perhaps more lively.

Transition, oil on canvas,
246 x 178 cm (97 x 70 in), 2010

Then something began to change with Sunrise. I painted the large central form yellow, then went back in with a different yellow. So what you have is this geometric form with a big gestural approach right in it. I was trying to activate the surface more, recalling the gestural nature of the work of the action painters.

Sunrise, oil on canvas,
201 x 155 cm (79 x 61 in), 2010

At this point, I began to free up the forms, letting more of a figure/ground situation develop.

Step Up, oil on canvas,
152 x 122 cm (60 x 48 in), 2011

And without the dark outlines or borders, the figure/ground relationship is more ambiguous, more atmospheric as the shapes float in the field, occasionally anchored to the bottom, side or top where they may touch another form …

Songsinger, oil on canvas,
152 x 122 cm (60 x 48 in), 2011

… or not.

Dancers in the Sun, oil on canvas,
178 x 132 cm (70 x 52 in), 2012

Love at First Sight and the others without dark lines are extremely exuberant. This is a love song or a poem, and it contains all of me or all I can give.

Love at First Sight, oil on canvas,
211 x 173 cm (83 x 68 in), 2012

JK: You’ve recently made some constructions using wood nailed to a canvas base.

TW: These small assemblages were fun, though a bit anomalous. They’re intentionally made rather crudely using wood that I found.

An Open Window, oil and wood on canvas,
58 x 51 x 13 cm (23 x 20 x 5 in), 2012
The Garden Trellis, oil and wood on canvas,
53 x 57 x 11 cm (21 x 22.5 x 4.5 in), 2012

In these small wooden constructions, you can get a glimpse into the paintings in three dimensions. My ideas are the same, but the constructions reveal layers that the two-dimensional painted surface can only hint at.

Just a Thought, oil and wood on canvas,
32 x 28 x 4 cm (12.5 x 11 x 1.5 in), 2012
Real Deal, oil and wood on canvas,
38 x 33 x 5 cm (15 x 13 x 2 in), 2012

The constructions don’t represent an important change of direction for me. I don’t plan on doing a lot more of them. They become like sculpture, and I’m not really a sculptor.

JK: Yes, it’s clear that your career has been dedicated to an intense exploration of the two-dimensional surface of the canvas.

TW: I’ve always been passionate about painting. Initially, of course, I was very influenced by the Abstract Expressionists. But then other influences and life experiences began to enter in—like Hard-edge painting, Process art, Minimalism, Pop art; the culture shock of coming to New York and being able to go to other artists’ studios, galleries and museums, seeing what was actually happening now rather than after the fact through art books and magazines. I’m like a sponge, and all this started to feed into my work. Since that time, my attempt has always been to try to synthesize all these influences, to bring them to some sort of consensus within my work and make a statement out of all that input that’s truly my own.

Thornton Willis in his Mercer Street Studio, New York, NY, 2009
Photo credit: Martyn Thompson

For Rachel and David —TW



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