Band of Brothers
Artist George Towne Draws Inspiration from the Circle of Men in His Life
by Chael Needle
Light was fading when I arrived at the tail end of the opening of George Towne’s recent exhibition at Michael Mut Gallery in the East Village of New York City. A throng of art lovers, mostly men, had spilled out from the one-scoop-of-ice-cream-sized space onto the chipped sidewalk along Avenue C. Like the paintings on display, the gallery could barely contain the life within.
“Oh, it’s been wonderful!” says George Towne about the response to “The Company of Men,” his first solo exhibition in a New York commercial gallery. “I am grateful for all the support I’ve gotten so far—from friends who’ve known my work for a while, as well as from new admirers.…It’s been great seeing how many people have come over to the East Village’s Avenue C to see the work in person, given that this is the Internet age when people could just as easily see some of the jpegs on the gallery’s Web site.”
Indeed, images on a computer screen do not quite allow you to see the care involved in Towne’s paintings—the hand at work and the heart in play. Whether tree-filtered light on brickwork or the anticipation of a question on a male subject’s face, Towne presents beauty in all of its softness and grit.
The exhibition, coinciding with New York City Pride activities, perhaps garnered extra media listings and attention from tourists, suggests Towne, who’s also pleased that the month was capped off by the passage of the same-sex marriage bill in the New York State legislature. The timing is serendipitous. Towne’s work features complex portraits of men that are anchored in the kind of affection that nurtures collective social action.
“I’ve also been extremely grateful to find a community of artists, admirers, and even collectors through my growing association with the Leslie-Lohman Gay Art Foundation in Soho. Since they’ve been growing through the years and are now located in a much larger space, they’ve had many more projects I’ve been able to be associated with, from their ‘Gay Men’s Erotic Life Drawing’ Studio, the exciting group exhibitions I’ve been included in, and my studio was even a part of a collector’s tour they organized in my region of the city,” says Towne, who holds an MFA from the School of Visual Arts.
In the past year, Towne’s work was exhibited in the New York shows, “The Timberfield 10” at The Forbes Galleries and P.J.S. Exhibitions’ “Seduction–Queer Visions of Masculinity,” and he also participated in Visual AIDS’ annual benefit, Postcards from the Edge.
Michael Mut Gallery will again host an exhibition of George Towne’s work in 2012.
Chael Needle: Congrats on your first solo exhibition. Why did you choose the title, “The Company of Men”?
George Towne: The images I’ve painted depicting these men have a real presence, and the scale of a few of them is close to life-size, so the
experience for the viewer can be as if they are in the company of them. I mean, I know there’s been two or three movies with the same title so I hope it doesn’t sound cliché, but I was trying to consider the viewer’s experience. A viewer will come into this show and see a lot of images of guys. My style is not so “photorealistic” that they can’t tell it’s a painting they’re looking at, but I’ve heard people say that some of the guys in the artworks seem to be watching them, and that their eyes follow them around the room.
Well, it’s hard to avoid Nando’s gaze! You describe this style in your artist’s statement as “painterly realistic.” What do you feel this expresses that photorealism might not be able to?
Well, although I do a fair amount of life drawing so I don’t get rusty, my studio paintings are done from photos, usually ones that I’ve taken myself with a digital camera. I find that, with digital photography these days, things are much easier to control with the shooting and by using my own color printer than they were when I used to paint from those 4-by-6-inch prints developed by someone else at a local Fotomat. It is tempting to be much more photorealistic, since the quality of my reference has so greatly improved, but I do like to try to stay with a more “painterly realistic” style, in which, by leaving sections of a painting a bit “brushstroke-y,” along with punching up my color choices, it references the joy and play of the painting process. I guess I don’t go all the way to an Impressionistic style though, because it still gives me a thrill to hear that I really caught a model’s likeness, or to hear someone say that it feels like a model in a painting might come right out of the canvas and start speaking to them!
You mentioned that you know all of your subjects, but was there a theme you wanted to explore? Brotherhood, or community, perhaps?
Yes, those themes are present. So, brotherhood—but in a sexy way! I’ve found it easier to work on these labor-intensive pieces if I find the models sexy in some way! But most of these guys I also know and respect, and most of them are openly gay men. One of them [Nando] was actually a counselor of mine who helped me through a rough time after having found out I was HIV-positive and had stopped painting for a while. Another is a couple, Lennart and Stevie, who were able to have their marriage recognized a few years back by moving to Sweden. (Lennart is a Swedish citizen and although they may be able to marry now in New York State, Stevie is from Long Island and the immigration aspects are national issues, so I doubt they still have the same rights as [those in] straight marriages in that respect.)
Sometimes I appropriate a pose from an artwork by someone else that I admire—the painting Mike with Skull is taken from a famous photograph by Duane Michals called All Things Mellow in the Mind that is often used in reference to AIDS loss. I realize that viewers often won’t have knowledge of my references or what any particular model means to me, but I think they are able to understand that there was a love and reverence present in my art-making process.
When we talked earlier, you mentioned that you stopped painting. What prompted you to start up again?
I think I mentioned that the news of becoming HIV-positive had been a big blow to me, as I must have seroconverted by being careless with condoms and safe-sex practices. When I had come to the city twenty years ago, I had gotten involved with the gay community early and had quickly learned all about how to protect myself, and had used condoms faithfully. I had also seen many people get very sick who hadn’t learned, and had more than one close friend pass away—so, I guess I felt I was from the generation who should have “known better.” Hearing the news that I was now HIV-positive did give me some deep shame and guilt issues, which, along with some relationship and financial struggles, led me to question my art-making, and I stopped painting for at least a year and a half. It was a pretty terrible funk I was in, with a lot of isolation.
It wasn’t until I needed some services from GMHC that I joined, and realized I was eligible for some counseling, that I started to question this. My counselor there, Nando, was very inspiring, and had similar issues, so I started to confront them. I also started to do some volunteer work at the organization called Visual AIDS, where I became an Artist Member and was given an art materials grant at an art supply store. And I started to realize that there was a community of openly HIV-positive artists working who became role models for me, like Richard Renaldi [A&U, March 2010], whom I had known back in my art school days. This eventually led me back into a work ethic, and the encouragement has held. I even got Rich and his partner Seth to pose for me for a painting! I based it on a Lucian Freud portrait composition.
I am so glad for your sake and our sake that you worked your way back to painting. You mentioned Duane Michals, Lucian Freud, and this community of HIV-positive artists from which you draw inspiration. What else inspires you as an artist?
I’ve loved looking at David Hockney’s work, as well as his research on how the Old Masters had used lenses, mirrors, and early camera obscura techniques to
aid them in much the same way that contemporary artists use photography. I was also invited, with nine other artists hand-picked by the editor of American Artist Magazine, to paint male nudes, outdoors and using models, one weekend last year on an estate in New Jersey, which was where the painting Roly and Chase—Outdoors originated. Most of the nude model studies I’ve attempted were done with indoor set-ups and lighting because I live in Manhattan, but, because this was on a private estate, the outdoor nudity was allowed undisturbed. It really felt like I was channeling Thomas Eakins’ painting The Swimming Hole, or some Walt Whitman poem!
Chael Needle is Managing Editor of A&U.