APRIL 13 â€“ MAY 24, 2017
APRIL 13 â€“ MAY 24, 2017
BOARD OF DIRECTORS
Theodore S. Berger Thomas G. Devine Thomas K.Y. Hsu John S. Kiely Vivian Kuan
Christen Martosella Brian D. Starer
Gregory Amenoff, Emeritus
Corina Larkin Executive Director Beatrice Wolert-Weese Deputy Director Shona Masarin-Hurst Programs Director Chase Martin Development Associate Eva Elmore Programs Assistant
Polly Apfelbaum Katie Cercone Ian Cooper
Michelle Grabner Eleanor Heartney
Trenton Doyle Hancock Pablo Helguera Paddy Johnson Deborah Kass
Rossana Martinez Juan Sรกnchez
Irving Sandler Lilly Wei
CUE Art Foundation is a visual arts center dedicated to creating essential career and educational opportunities for artists of all ages. Through
exhibitions, arts education, and public programs, CUE provides artists, writers, and audiences with sustaining, meaningful experiences and resources.
CUEâ€™s exhibition program aims to present new and exceptionally strong work by under-recognized and emerging artists based in the United States, and is committed to exhibiting work of all disciplines from living artists. Exhibiting artists are selected via a hybrid process, featuring solo exhibitions curated by established artists, alongside a series of solo and group exhibitions
selected by an annual Open Call. In line with CUEâ€™s commitment to providing
substantive professional development opportunities, curators and Open Call panelists also serve as mentors to the exhibiting artists, providing support throughout the process of developing the exhibition. We are honored to work with artist Tom Burckhardt as the curator of this exhibition.
When asked to talk about my work, words and ideas
bubble up from the chemical retort of my mind in a way
that is somewhat fractured and mercurial. It is as if I have crossed too many wires and traveled too deep during
the long, consuming process it takes in order for me to
complete one of my paintings, that parts of my brain short circuit as a result. This simmering aphasia can cloud the light streaming through an inner vessel as it is working exhaustively at the level of transmutation; a delicate process of combining, in the mind's eye, divergent
modalities from a wide spectrum of sourcesâ€”the archaic and the visionary, the medieval and the futuristic, the
formal and the abstractâ€”and tinkering with their essences, finally merging them into synergistic compositions,
waveforms, and talisman-like energy systems. When I
finally assimilate the full breadth and magnitude of what I am doing, the experience is of awakening a vestigial
organ so quickly that it shatters, bringing me almost to
the brink of a seizure. I think my paintings have this quality embedded in them. When I stare at a finished piece, it's
like I see a peak experience, illuminated in front of my eyes. This is a spellbinding sensation, which I ride throughout
the entire journey and also manage to detach from long Photo by Elias Irani
enough to articulate some portion of it.
Priests and shamans from different cultures have, for
objects with mystical power by setting their intention
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and in East Madison, Maine,
invocations, spells, and rituals over it, the object’s power
Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. He has held
for its user, who navigates the spirit world. In my painting,
summers. He was raised in Virginia, in the suburbs of DC.
unconscious. Like a shaman, I gravitate towards material
University in 2000, and attended the Skowhegan School of
often-tricky landscape of the inner self.
Museum Fine Art Fellowships as an undergraduate,
I have struggled with mental illness in the past and was
participated as an artist in residence at the Vermont Studio
decade ago. It makes sense to me, then, that these loaded
School of Art in 2014. Thornton has shown his work in
task of self-preservation so I can go on making my work
Fleisher/Ollman, Stephen Romano gallery, and The
thousands of years, created power objects. They imbue
Shawn Thornton is an artist who lives and works in West
onto an object that they are drawn to. By performing
where he is seasonally employed in the kitchen at the
increases. A power object serves as a protective device
the baking position at the school for fourteen consecutive
I employ magick sigils and archetypes from our collective
Thornton received a BFA from Virginia Commonwealth
that appears to hold some attractive force, as I navigate the
Painting and Sculpture in 2002. He received two Virginia and a Pollack-Krasner Foundation Grant in 2007. He has
treated to remove a brain tumor from my pineal gland a
Center ('01, '07, ‘14) and was a fall resident at Ox-Bow
symbols and motifs would surface to assist in the elusive
galleries throughout Philadelphia and New York, including
and exploring the complex networks they eventually reveal
Philadelphia Institute for Advanced Study, amongst others.
to me. Each incremental decision I make during my artistic process bears the hopeful intention of amplifying the aura and energy of an object—ultimately these are the tools
that help me discover my sea legs in a strange and intense universe.
TOM BURCKHARDT CURATOR-MENTOR
I knew in five seconds that I wanted to nominate Shawn
Thornton for an exhibition at CUE. He is inexplicably underknown and deserving of greater exposure. I’ve followed his work for ten years and I have great admiration for his slow but intense determination.
Thornton creates a Gesamtkunstwerk around his life and studio, making paintings, music, ritual-like pop objects, and clothes. All of this is in service of rebuilding his
mental pathways after a serious illness—a kind of tantric idea of how to hold an image in one’s mind as a tool of
consciousness. Seeing Thornton’s work as analogous to
maps of circuit boards seems too facile an interpretation,
as that would insist on a particular relationship to scale. His paintings are so much more mutable in the size and space
represented. Images and symbols weave in and out, often loosening themselves of received context and meaning.
For me, and perhaps Thornton, they elude any definitive decoding, but his commitment to this soup making is palpable.
Thornton has told me that he doesn’t often find easy
enjoyment in his tortuously slow painting production, but it’s the very necessity of his paintings that makes them so
affecting to me. They strike me as some of the most sincere work I've encountered.
Tom Burckhardt was born in New York City in 1964
completed touring the US for the last two years. He
with a BFA in painting from SUNY Purchase in 1986
India, where he exhibited a new installation piece
Sculpture that same year. He has been exhibiting
the Pierogi Gallery, New York, in September 2017.
Gallery and Caren Golden Fine Art in New York, and the
Burckhardt has been a resident faculty at Skowhegan in
and has spent his entire life living there. He graduated
participated in the 2016 Kochi-Muziris Bienale in Kerala,
and attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and
entitled Studio Flood. The installation will be shown at
since 1992 at various galleries such as Tibor De Nagy Gregory Lind Gallery, in San Francisco.
2007 and currently teaches part time at SUNY Purchase.
Burckhardtâ€™s most recent show of paintings was
exhibited at Tibor De Nagy in Spring 2015, and his 2005 cardboard installation FULL STOP has just
Serpent's Egg in The Seat Of Consciousness 2004-2005 11" x 11" Oil on panel
Witch Doctor At The Eye of The Solar Epoch 2008-2010 12" x 29" Oil on panel
The Eye at the Parting of Eyes (Cosmic Viruses) 5" x 7" Oil on panel
Ringing of The Death's Head Procession 2004-2005 11" x 11" Oil on panel
Brahmastra For a New Age (UFO/Time Machine) 2010-2013 9" x 27" Oil on panel Detail overleaf
PREVIOUS SPREAD, LEFT
Lobotomy of the Ghost Mechanics – Scarab Timetable 2004-2007 11” x 11” Oil on panel Collection of Kathy Butterly and Tom Burckhardt Photo by Shona Masarin-Hurst
PREVIOUS SPREAD, RIGHT
Homemade Space Suit Made of Living Information 2016 8" x 8" Oil on panel
Electricity, Osmosis, and The Germination of Conflicting Archetypes 2015 5" x 7" Oil on panel
Green Flame Hypnosis 2017 8" x 8" Oil on panel
PREVIOUS SPREAD, LEFT
Mother Brain Decoding The Psychonautical Device 2004-2007 11" x 11" Oil on panel
PREVIOUS SPREAD, RIGHT
Healers in The Alchemical Forrest 2004-2008 11" x 11" Oil on panel
Solar Scars and Scrying Discs 2004-2006 11" x 11" Oil on Panel
PREVIOUS SPREAD, LEFT
A Fracture in The Golden Mean 2004-2005 11" x 11" Oil on panel
PREVIOUS SPREAD, RIGHT
The Cryptogram of The Sun 2004-2007 11" x 11" Oil on panel
Black Pyramid Meditation 2004-2008 11" x 11" Oil on panel
SHAWN THORNTON: Pareidolia BECKY HUFF HUNTER
Witch Doctors at the Eye of the Solar Epoch (2008-2010) is a long, landscape-oriented oil painting on panel whose dimensions and compositional structure resemble a folded-out paper map. In urgent hues, it presents a god’s-eye view of a watery city or an entire cosmos, punctuated with networks of mystical and mathematical symbols. Curving sections of pale blue, white, and brown might be water and roadways. Yet Thornton also represents some subjects conventionally, head-on, as in his depiction of a simple, brown sailboat on blue water, which is constructed from the same blocks of color that make the map. The notations include tiny rainbows and Coptic crosses; infinity signs and directional arrows; skulls connected to spinal columns, whose geometric vertebrae look like railway tracks, rendered in brown and orange; and 28
cartouches of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic writing—which angels supposedly fed on parchment to spiritual seekers, Thornton said. Witch Doctors comprises multiple systems coming together and falling apart, held tentatively by invisible bonds. The modestly sized painting is worked with tens of layers of tiny, almost invisible brushstrokes. While seemingly flat at first glance, and in reproduction, the painting is actually constructed of tiny low reliefs—the slow, small brushstrokes and the shapes’ carefully-delineated borders draw the viewer’s attention to minute differences between sections. Thornton’s colors are supersaturated and largely unmixed, taken directly from the tube. Beside his easel, he keeps a studio workbench into which is built a covered
wooden tray. It contains large chunks of oil paint arranged, left to right, from cool to warm colors; each has a dried skin that he pierces to access the still wet paint inside. He works this way, he says, because his paintings take years to complete and require exactly the same vivid color palette over time. Thornton applies multiple layers of paint even on background sections, to achieve the desired color saturation and surface. Thornton’s studio is almost as densely organized as his paintings. Finished and unfinished works on board, small square examples and wider rectangular ones, hang on the studio walls. Works in progress show that Thornton starts with large, map-like blocks of color and then gradually focuses on smaller and smaller sections of symbols. Along with his own paintings, the studio contains works by his peers that resonate with his practice aesthetically and conceptually, including an intricate paper cutout of a skull by Hunter Stabler; a semi-representational pattern print in shades of grey and black by Astrid Bowlby; and circular landscapes embroidered in tiny stitches, which resemble Van Gogh’s emotive brushstrokes, by Samantha Jorgensen, affixed to two-foot high angel figurines. Nestled amongst these works of art are toys, antiques, and esoteric objects: a transparent plastic anatomical model of skeletal, muscular, and organ structures in pink and red; an egg decorated with hagiographic motifs. Thornton’s work recalls Jain spiritual drawings of the universe, which he shared with me. These drawings tightly condense, flatten, and systematize bird’s-eye views of earth, water, and sky, and render their stylized inhabitants as richly color-blocked, concentric circles
and straight, parallel lines; they also show frontal representations of temples. Even more, Thornton’s paintings remind me of contemporary artist Jane Irish’s monumental oil and graphite depictions of traditional Vietnamese oceanic and zodiac cosmologies. Irish interrupts ancient Eastern spiritual symbology with overtly political, modern images of war, including guns, protest signs, and camouflage gear. A similarly disruptive juxtaposition of esoteric and familiar content occurs in Thornton’s work, though with different motivations. For example, he turns to mechanistic nomenclature to liken the “individual components” in his paintings to Tantric painting, in which such simple geometric arrangements as a red circle juxtaposed with a black triangle represent, say, deities receptive to human meditation. Together, he says, the tiny symbols that pattern each of his works form “a cosmos of small Tantric paintings that come together as anthropomorphic circuit boards.” This uncomfortable, alchemical bumping together of the spiritual and the scientific reveals Thornton’s driving force. In numerous interviews, Thornton has described this body of work’s germination in traumatic medical and psychiatric experiences that persisted throughout his twenties. An undiagnosed brain tumor put pressure on his pineal gland for several years, causing blackouts, hallucinations, and terrifying sensations of unreality. The pineal gland, an endocrine structure located near the brain’s center, has been subject to metaphysical and occult speculation for hundreds of years. Madame Helena Blavatsky, whose nineteenth-century theosophical writings Thornton has read, called it the third eye of Hinduism—a mystical organ 29
that enables spiritual seeing. The notations that populate Thornton’s paintings drew initially from his own pineal visions, which were not paranormal in nature, but pulled from his memories of cultural symbols. This exhibition’s title, “Pareidolia,” refers to one way that Thornton has grappled with the emergence of these remembered images as hallucinations. Pareidolia names the human brain’s evolutionarily expedient tendency to see patterns where none exist, for example to see faces in rock formations, wood grain, or even abstract painting. Now, Thornton researches existent visual systems to enrich his practice. In addition to Jain and Tantric cosmologies, he is interested in medieval bestiaries, shamanic power objects, and fantastical codices by contemporary designers, including Luigi Serafini’s Codex Seraphinianus of imaginary creatures. For Thornton, these diverse iconographies are analogies for the visions he saw when ill, and for the decentered state that he still endures, rather than persuasive belief systems: “I’m sure anyone who has been sick knows this feeling of being fractured inside—you find you’re in a constant, urgent dialogue with yourself, trying to put the pieces back in order.” Science fiction offers Thornton another byway from the straight and narrow track of empirical thought. In H. P. Lovecraft’s short story “From Beyond” (1934), an inventor who believes “strange, inaccessible worlds exist at our very elbows” stimulates his own pineal gland electronically and unveils a hitherto unknown range of human perception. As otherdimensional creatures appear, fear, chaos, and murder follow—a reminder of our mortality, and a moral suggestion that perhaps we are better 30
off, healthier and more content, when relying on our limited natural senses. Thornton’s Brahmastra For a New Age (UFO/Time Machine) (2010–13), is structured around a central near-ellipse—or flying saucer—marked with white, red, and green borders like planetary rings. Like Witch Doctors, this work represents its subjects in an overhead view, as in an architectural plan, and also three-dimensionally, as in an architectural elevation. This work’s title signals the danger inherent in moving beyond the known, as “Brahmastra” in ancient Sanskrit writings is a powerful weapon. In this painting, the danger is both scientific and spiritual, and made more apparent by the chaotic circuitry of connected miniature symbols that swarm the work’s surface. The combination of these digital and ancient referents, and their sheer hyperbolic quantity, produces a risk of cliché of which Thornton is aware. He told me, “I will sometimes use an image, symbol, or representation that I am aware has been overused and is a cliché, but I’ll overload it through repetition, create a synergy with surrounding images, or contradict it with seemingly diametric images from a different visual vocabulary.” While the process of painting can be meditative for Thornton, finishing a work is not cathartic, nor does making art resolve inner conflict. It is more accurate to think of these works as having a dual purpose as containers for traumatic experience and living documents of the multifaceted research into this experience. “The paintings are both talismans and malignant forces,” he told me. A trained artist, Thornton nevertheless feels close to the early-twentieth-century abstract work of German faith healer Emma Kunz and the complex maps by Swiss outsider artist and diagnosed
psychotic Adolf Wölfli, as well as the work of outsider artists in his home district of West Philadelphia. As a result of his health condition, Thornton has turned to outsider methodologies, but folded them into the context of contemporary art, which his work in turn enriches. Although he is a painter, his work has much in common with the dense digital psychedelia of post-internet art, such as Kari Altmann’s Soft Mobility (2014), which organizes thousands of small, interrelated images on screen in an infinite scroll and reminds us of the overwhelming amount of digital imagery we process daily. Inspired by ancient Indian spirituality, Francesco Clemente combines pattern, notation, and multiple points of view in paintings that also have affinities with Thornton’s. However, by framing his body of work with the
exhibition title “Pareidolia,” Thornton taps a more familiar phenomenon to which almost every viewer can relate—apprehending imagery in formless clouds—to create a bridge between his fractured experience and more ordinary, cohesive perceptions of reality. His use of multiple points of view such as the blue and brown sailboat that emerges from the same sections of paint as the map-like composition in Witch Doctors at the Eye of the Solar Epoch— conjure this common kind of pareidolia. In inviting us to ask which content comes first, the boat or the map, he leads us toward an understanding of his own hallucinatory visions.
This essay was written as part of the Art Critic Mentoring Program, a partnership between AICA-USA (US section of International Association of Art Critics) and CUE, which pairs emerging writers with AICA-USA
mentors to produce original essays on a specific exhibiting artist. Please visit aicausa.org for more information on AICA-USA, or cueartfoundation.org to learn how to participate in this program. Any quotes are from
interviews with the author unless otherwise specified. No part of this essay may be reproduced without prior consent from the author. Lilly Wei is AICA’s Coordinator for the program this season.
Becky Huff Hunter is a writer and critic in Philadelphia, who has contributed to Artforum, Frieze, Art Papers, Sculpture, and the Two Coats of Paint blog. She was the founding editor of the Notes platform for new perspectives on art at the Institute of Contemporary, University of Pennsylvania, where she also curated several online exhibitions. Mentor Nancy Princenthal is a New York-based critic and former Senior Editor of Art in America; other
publications to which she has contributed include Artforum, Parkett, the Village Voice, and the New York Times. Her book Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art (Thames and Hudson) was published in June 2015. She is also the
author of Hannah Wilke (Prestel, 2010), and her essays have appeared in monographs on Shirin Neshat, Doris Salcedo, Robert Mangold and Alfredo Jaar, among many others. She is a co-author of two recent books on leading women artists, including The Reckoning: Women Artists of the New Millennium (Prestel, fall 2013).
Having taught at the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College; Princeton University; Yale University, RISD, Montclair State University and elsewhere, she is currently on the faculty of the School of Visual Arts.
CUE Art Foundationâ€™s operations and programs are made possible with
the generous support of foundations, corporations, government agencies, individuals, and its members.
MAJOR PROGRAMMATIC SUPPORT PROVIDED BY Agnes Gund The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts Anholt Services (USA) Inc. CAF American Donor Fund Compass Group Management LLC Compass Diversified Holdings Elizabeth Firestone Graham Foundation The Joan Mitchell Foundation Lenore Malen and Mark Nelkin The Milton and Sally Avery Arts Foundation, Inc. The Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation Squire Patton Boggs William Talbot Hillman Foundation New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, in partnership with the City Council This project is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts
All artwork ÂŠ Shawn Thornton.
Photos by Ryan Collerd, unless otherwise noted. Catalogue design by Shona Masarin-Hurst.
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