Oil Painting: James Tormey: Still Life and Context

Oil Painting: James Tormey: Still Life and Context

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This veteran painter conveys powerful meaning in his still lifes by continually shifting the backgrounds and settings in which they appear.

by John A. Parks

1994, oil, 18 x 12.
All artwork this article
private collection unless
otherwise indicated.

James Tormey paints still lifes with a meticulous and almost ferocious clarity. Rather than simply rendering his subjects for the pleasure of it, however, Tormey builds stronger and more precise meaning into his work by exploring how the backgrounds and settings for his still lifes can convey particular ideas. In his recent work, for instance, he painted a series of images in which fruit—a traditional still-life subject—is placed in architectural settings or frames that we usually associate with religious imagery. In Icon, for instance, the artist painted a red cabbage and placed it inside a Renaissance-style frame that he built and decorated himself. Instead of being presented with a saint or a Madonna within such a context, we are given a fully realized, but quite ordinary, vegetable.

“I believe the only way we can come to terms with the world is if we look at it as it really is,” Tormey says. “What I’m doing with these paintings is saying ‘This is what is real, this is what we should be looking to for values.’” Tormey believes that artists should take responsibility for the meaning their works carry. “There are definite ideas behind my paintings,” says the artist. “There’s a way of looking at the world that I try to communicate. Art is about taking the artist’s values, expressing them through a medium, and making them concrete.”

Galileo’s Egg
1986, oil, 46 x 34.

The strategy of transporting the still life to unlikely places has been Tormey’s preoccupation for many years. He recently completed a series of works in which he painted a group of still-life props—mostly apples—around the various architectural pieces at the Bethesda Fountain, in New York City’s Central Park. With their fanciful Romanesque decoration, these backgrounds have an otherworldly and faintly spiritual feel. The introduction of diminutive still lifes adds an almost humorous note and undercuts the heavy pretensions of the architecture with an insistence on simplicity. Nature, the artist seems to be saying, can coexist beautifully with the products of human imagination.

In another group of paintings, the artist used an even simpler idea to convey meaning: he placed fruit in semitranslucent decorative bowls whose crystal distorted the forms so that they appear diaphanous and disjointed. Extending out of the bowls into the clear light, however, the fruit suddenly becomes real and very solid. “I really like the idea of the intangible becoming manifest,” says the artist. “It’s almost as though these paintings are a paradigm of how all paintings develop: they begin with formlessness, which then crystallizes into an idea, and then the idea comes into being on the canvas.”

Mixed Company
2000, oil, 34 x 38.

Tormey is deeply preoccupied with the creative process. “I’m fascinated by how I can have an idea about a painting that seems to come from nowhere, make the piece, have a viewer enjoy that thing and even want to buy it, and then have the buyer take it away. And if that painting becomes an object of meditation and quietness in a person’s home, it’s a particularly wonderful thing.”

Tormey’s painting technique involves great care from the beginning. He works in his apartment in Manhattan’s Upper West Side in a meticulously clean space equipped with a very solid easel and a large glass palette on a painting table. For reference he uses photographs he has taken of still-life setups in conjunction with pictures of architectural or other settings he has collected over the years. “I start with a careful graphite drawing right on the canvas,” he explains. These days he uses lightweight cotton duck, although much of his earlier work was done on smoother surfaces. Once the graphite line is established, the artist makes a thin monochrome version of the image with a dull green. “I don’t add anything to the paint other than turpentine,” he explains. “I don’t use oil or glazing mediums because I don’t like shine. The turpentine dulls the paint, which suits what I’m doing.” Once the green layer has dried, the artist applies a second thin layer in a warm brown using burnt sienna or burnt umber. “In all these stages I’m working from dark to light,” he says, “so that I’m always getting a rendered, three-dimensional image.” Tormey works on two or three paintings at a time to allow for sufficient drying time between layers. “I also like the way one painting seems to talk to another,” he says. “It makes for a richer process.” Once he starts working in full color on the image, he continues slowly, applying many thin layers and gradually achieving subtle tonal and color shifts until his forms burst with three-dimensional life. “I work with a very dry brush,” explains the artist. Many of Tormey’s paintings contain dark backgrounds, some of which are pure black—something that can present its own technical problems. “I don’t want those backgrounds to feel present,” he says. “I want them to simply drop out.”

At the Base of the Pyramid
1986, oil, 40 x 32.

In general, Tormey works with soft synthetic brushes in various shapes and sizes. For blending, he uses synthetic fan brushes as well as a number of big, soft rounds. Because he doesn’t want any shine on his work he doesn’t use varnish. “Even matte varnishes are a problem,” says the artist, “because they contain wax. Sometimes after a year or two they will get a ‘bloom.’ It’s easy enough to get rid of, however—you just have to respray the varnish. But I’d rather not. Occasionally I will use a light retouch varnish while I’m working to bring something up a bit.”

It’s not surprising that Tormey’s work, with its heavy contrasts and smooth tonal transitions, is strongly influenced by photography. Tormey worked as a photographer for some years, and when he began doing still lifes he often photographed them against black backgrounds. It was during those years that he discovered both the Spanish still-life tradition and painters such as Juan Sánchez Cotán (ca. 1560–1627), who also enjoyed the drama of black backgrounds coupled with curious still-life arrangements. “It was like discovering I had a brother I never knew,” he recalls. Tormey is also a fan of the Italian painters Carlo Crivelli (ca. 1430–1495) and Vittore Carpaccio (ca. 1450–1525), whose paintings—with unusual and imaginative details—have a surprisingly modern appearance.

Blue Bowl With Pears
1997, oil, 36 x 36.
The View Beyond
1982, oil, 32 x 34.

Speaking of the insistent realism of his own work, Tormey again relates it to his personal philosophy. “I think what my objects are saying is ‘Don’t mess with me—take me seriously.’ These objects are reality, and they are all we have.”

About the Artist
James Tormey studied at the Pratt Institute, in Brooklyn, and worked in advertising for several years while he painted part time. In the 1960s he supported himself as a photographer, covering openings and events for the Museum of Modern Art, in New York City. For many years he was represented by the Madison Avenue Gallery, in New York City, where he had numerous one-man shows. He has also exhibited in Japan and Germany. The artist makes his home in Manhattan and is represented by the Uptown Gallery, also in New York City. For more information on Tormey, visit his website at www.jamestormey.com.

John A. Parks is an artist who is represented by Allan Stone Gallery, in New York City. He is also a teacher at the School of Visual Arts, in New York City, and is a frequent contributor to American Artist, Drawing, Watercolor, and Workshop magazines.

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