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Tom French Q&A

  • 7 min read

We got in touch with the talented artist to learn more about his work and career. Back from a successful solo show in California, the insightful painter took some time out of his studio to talk to artrepublic about his latest series, paranoia, philosophy, purists and paint.

Could you explain some of the concepts behind your Duality series?

We are all subject to constant, and ever changing psychological forces, and are generally at the mercy of our unconscious minds more than we realize - in the last few years neuroscience has shown us that many decisions are made in the brain before we are actually aware of making the decision. This means that, in many instances, by the time we’re conscious of having made a choice, the choice may already have been made for us.

It's suggested that our unconscious mind is generally responsible for emotional actions and reactions. We have little control over this, and are generally unaware of these forces even though we experience, and are in a sense, enveloped by them. This is the underlying basis for the compositions of the double image paintings, the characters acting out the scenes within the larger composition (of a face or a skull) are unaware of the bigger picture, yet moulded and influenced by it, and visa versa, both a separate, yet integral part of the other’s existence. Emotion and reason, instinct and awareness, mind and matter, the constantly present co-existence of opposites, these are a small few of the many facets to dualism theory.

Everyone will be familiar with the idea of seeing faces in the clouds, the man on the moon, or maybe the Rorscharch test and Max Ernst’s frottage technique - all applications of the psychological phenomenon 'Apophenia' - the experience of seeing meaningful patterns or connections in random meaningless data - sometimes described as 'unmotivated seeing of connections accompanied by a specific experience of abnormal meaningfulness'.

In his notebooks, Leonardo da Vinci wrote of this as a device for painters, writing "if you look at any walls spotted with various stains or with a mixture of different kinds of stones, if you are about to invent some scene you will be able to see in it a resemblance to various different landscapes adorned with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, plains, wide valleys, and various groups of hills. You will also be able to see divers, combats and figures in quick movement, and strange expressions of faces, and outlandish costumes, and an infinite number of things which you can then reduce into separate and well conceived forms."

In turn, as well as giving visual significance to objects, we also often make conceptual/abstract connections (often without being consciously aware of doing so), adding meaning - be it sentimental or symbolic - to something otherwise inanimate. Andre Breton wrote about the 'fundamental crisis of the object' - the object being thought of not as a fixed external object, but also as an extension of our subjective self. This has also been described as irrational knowledge - delirium of interpretation.

The action of bringing these phenomena into a visual reality, specifically through use of the double image technique, was described by the surrealists as the 'Paranoiac Critical Method', (although many examples of this existed previously) partially derived from the term 'paranoia', the definition of which bears a remarkable similarity to the aforementioned Apophenia. The subject of 'paranoia' has, on many occasions, been explored in this more positive sense - Philip K Dick commented “Strange how paranoia can link up with reality now and then.” and William S. Burroughs claimed “Paranoia is just having the right information.”

Would you describe your art as philosophical?

Elements are philosophical, or reflect certain philosophical ideas, but I wouldn't say my art falls predominantly into the philosophical bracket.

You've quoted Andre Breton who wrote about the “fundamental crisis of the object” – do you view your art work as an extension of yourself?

Unintentionally and unavoidably so, more than I realize at the time.

A monochrome palette is a characteristic of your art, how do you feel about colour? What’s your favourite colour?

I do enjoy working in monochrome; it has strengths which are difficult to put into words. There's something special about the simplicity of only using light and dark without the distraction and complications of colour and, though I'm by no means minimalist, I do like the purity of this. Colour can be very subjective and therefore has the possibility to be restrictive, and it would be foolish to think that full colour images can give us complete representation, due to our limited perception and individual interpretations, so for me, for now, I enjoy being free of these issues.

For some of my paintings, particularly the more figurative works with stronger elements of narrative, the timeless quality of the monochromatic palette suits and adds a cinematic feel, creating the feeling that the scene is a small part of a whole story. Of course, I'm not writing off the strengths of colour here, these are just a few quick thoughts as to why I didn't feel it would be beneficial for these recent works.

What made you become an artist? How did you get started?

I've always drawn or painted. From as far back as I can remember, my parents used to set time aside every day when I had to do something creative - writing, drawing, playing an instrument. I have no rhythm and language is far from a strength of mine.

My father's an artist too, a true inspiration, as dedicated as they come and an amazing wealth of knowledge, which is still a strong influence for me.

How do you approach the actual making of your work? How long does an average painting take you?

I guess I approach the actual making of a work relatively conventionally. I'll sketch out quick ideas or compositions, or even just reference points, then create small quick studies of the important elements of a painting. As for the final painting, I'll have an idea of what I want to achieve before putting paint to canvas, but am in no way strict with this, so the paintings do develop and evolve as they progress.

It's impossible to give a time scale for an individual piece of work, I have many paintings in progress at the same time, working up a section of one, then an element of another, giving myself a chance to reflect on developments before returning to the painting.

What would you say are the main themes you pursue?

Mortality, reality, perception, the psyche and the self.

Where do you find inspiration?

I try to feed myself with as much creative input as possible - reading, viewing exhibitions and the likes, as well as the randomness of day to day situations/experiences, but to be honest, most of my 'eureka' moments come whilst painting. I think it’s because that's when I'm most engaged with the work and also engrossed in it to the point that the brain can wander and reflect. It seems that once I get started with creating something it sparks off some kind of chain reaction. This does mean I'll often leave the piece I’m working on to start something more exciting, resulting in many unfinished works, though hopefully this means that it's the most interesting ones which make it to the end of the process.

What are you currently working on?

Now that I've just completed my latest body of work for an exhibition, I’m trying to get to grips with a heap of concepts I've had rattling around for the last few weeks/months/years. I'm pretty excited to see what'll come out of it.

Which of your works are you most proud of?

The centre piece of my latest 'Dualism' triptych is, probably the strongest contender so far.

Do you care whether people like your work?

Sometimes. Not all that much, but more than I'd like to.

What memorable responses have you had to your work?

At a recent exhibition, someone I'd never met before insisted that they believed a significant event had occurred in my life, when my work took a particular direction - they pushed to ask me what had happened, personally, before I created a particular work. I hadn't even realized this event was directly related to the concept behind the painting until that point. It was a fascinating and true personal revelation from a complete stranger.

What is the greatest threat to art today?

Stupidity. I was tempted to say money or greed, but to be fair, good art can still come from bad motives...sometimes.

Do you suffer for your art?

In some ways and occasionally this knocks onto those close to me - it can, at times, be challenging, frustrating and time consuming. I struggle to relax and turn off from it if something isn't working out well. Of course, when it's good it's great, and the benefits just about outweigh the negatives.

When are you happiest?

When I don't give a fuck about anything - a luxury my brain doesn’t allow me to indulge very often!

Is there an art form you don’t relate to?

Some more so than others, but surely everyone can relate to everything in some way or another, however insignificantly. I'll keep this positive rather than going into the negatives I find with certain art forms.

Which artists do you most admire?

Purists.

What work of art would you most like to own?

Frans Snyders 'Still life with terms and a bust of Ceres'. It's the most visually impactful painting I've seen so far.

What was the last book you read?

I'm currently reading Geek Love. It’s odd, I haven’t decided if that’s in a good way, but I'm intrigued.

What’s your favourite film?

The last film to really make an impact on me is, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. I'm still trying to work out the meaning of the Frans Hals painting used as a focal point for the main set of the film.

Describe an average day in the life of Tom French -

I don't really have much of an average day, or that much of a routine. I mean, I wake up, do stuff (as much stuff as I can fit in generally), eat, shit and sleep, just in different quantities each day. As much as possible, I try to keep things so that I can do what I like, when I like.

Image Credits: Richard Kenworthy photography

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