Trevor Guthrie in his Zurich Studio before an unfinished self portrait, Feb. 9th 2008
By Noah Becker
Trevor Guthrie works primarily in monochrome making large format charcoal drawings. Guthrie makes his point through the re-presentation of found photographs into larger than life renderings on paper. If contemporary photographic practice produces photographs through an appropriation or reinvestigation of painted masterpieces from the past, then Guthrie’s strategies go towards the opposite. Trevor Guthrie employs photographic materials or anything he discovers or deems useful towards his endgame. This process is less the conceptually driven tactics of art historical research than a plundering of the treasures inherent in our image-rich digital playground. This treasure is then organized as a of visual diary pieced together through a system of discovered truths. These truths are tempered by the artist’s experiences. Guthrie involves himself with photographic source material that somehow connects to his childhood yet strongly rooted in the morbidity of an adult awareness.
Guthrie has been exposed to artists working in a similar manner. Gerhard Richter’s influence is apparent as is Francis Bacon and Edward Hopper. Trevor Guthrie has combined his influences the way a DJ superimposes transparent layers of curated sound thus achieving an original piece of music. Untitled, 2006 is taken from a photograph of an air Canada plane on the runway with smoke billowing from it’s cabin. Guthrie was raised in Canada which makes the drawing a visual pun. The image’s horizontal strokes remind one of Francis Bacon’s paint handling without pushing too far into Gerhard Richter’s visual language. Guthrie has found a delicate balance with his method that avoids the traps of stylistic imitation. A liberation from the trap of overt imitation is what sets these pictures apart.
When one first views a Guthrie drawing, there is an instant shock. This shock is the subconscious mind’s recognition that it is not a photograph being experienced, but Guthrie’s capturing of the camera’s version of reality’s ghost. This talent for finding the mysterious understructure of pictorial code is also the inherent strength of Francis Bacon. Even the most mundane of subjects is infused with meaning in this way. The sublime takes on the much more elusive forms such as an apparition beneath the picture plane.
Guthrie’s drawing from 2004 entitled Myself on the no. 67 is a view of an empty city bus seen from the back looking forward with a self portrait of the artist seen sitting alone at the front right hand side of the bus interior. There is a sublime reflective quality to the mirrored surfaces found in the bus interior. Light is bouncing all through the stainless steel framework of the interior, an interior that remains strangely lonely at the same time. The monadic artist with his back turned from the viewer is reminiscent of Vermeer’s self portrait. Myself on the no. 67 could be seen as a contemporary Edward Hopper. As in Hopper, Guthrie has the ability to inhabit that lonely urban interior space. This type of pictorial space Guthrie inhabits is a deep perspective system heightened by dramatic cinematic lighting for which charcoal on paper is a perfect medium.
Noah Becker interviewing Trevor Guthrie about his recent series of anamorphic drawings November 17th. 2006
NB: At what point did you find a way to expand your work through the inspiration you gained from Holbein's ambassadors?
TG: Well, it was actually a commission that I was having trouble with -a portrait, I am not terribly good at likenesses so I needed something to turn it up a notch.
NB: What do you mean by turn it up a notch?
TG: I needed to find something that was old school in a craft, but in a contemporary context .
NB: So you are saying that it was a desire of yours to liberate yourself from the constraints of the traditional genre of the boardroom portrait?
TG: Yes, to get as far away from it as possible. It was an interesting experiment because I had no idea how the patron would react.
NB: There are artists dealing with this format who are doing contemporary things such as John Currin.
TG: They are skilled at what they do.
NB: So you are not negating the portrait as a valid stylistic means to an end? The portrait genre as an approach?
TG: No, there is still room for discovery and surprise at a higher level.
NB: Let's go back to the beginning. where were you born, when and to whom?
TG: I was born in Fife, Scotland in 1964 into a family with three siblings. We emigrated to Canada when I was a year old. Leaving "old Europe" in search of a better life in Canada.
NB: Very little is known about the inception of your work and beginnings are meaningful. Tell me about how you began.
TG: My first memories are of drawing, my mother giving me brown paper grocery bags to draw on. I remember drawing for hours by myself.
I didn't need to be with other children. My son is a bit of a lonely wolf as well.
NB: Some of your work recalls cinematic and photographic procedures can you explain your connection with photographs and the cinema?
TG: I have used a Polaroid camera for about fifteen years now. It was the British artist Francis Bacon`s mode of working with photos that lead me to investigate the photo as source material. I have hundreds of polaroids now but lately I have been appropriating found images more often than using my own. The cinema is an omnipresent art-form which invariably has a broad reaching influence. One must only think of how much material Bacon appropriated from Battleship Potemkin.
NB: But Bacon was not the first artist to use photography.
TG: Well, we can move back along the thread of art history if you like. Degas was a good example.
NB: So you are citing bacon as your primary influence or are there others?
TG: My influences were Velasquez and Caravaggio if not Holbein.
Trevor Guthrie, Anamorphic Study #5, 2006 charcoal 60 x 120 cm courtesy Big Society, Zurich Switzerland
NB: What do you imagine the viewer's experience will be when they engage with a morphed Guthrie image?
TG: Shock and awe? Horror and delight? As long as it isn`t "Gleichgültigkeit!".
NB: I'll be more specific. what experience do you want the viewer to have when looking at a morphed drawing?
TG: Well, the work is hopefully not just about portraits, the figures are mostly no-names, so the association isn't directly about the subject -its more of a mirror relating to the contemporary.
NB: Imagine you are a architect who just built a fun-house and a rollercoaster...now...what experience does the viewer have riding on a morphed Guthrie?
In a special effects sense.
TG: I think the optic element gives the work a bit of that fun-house vibe.
NB: Like looking into a fun-house mirror.
TG: When I first viewed at Holbein`s Two Ambassadors, it was the delight of finding the skull.
NB: Why do you think Holbein put that there?
TG: I think it was a coded message for the followers of Osama bin Laden.
NB: Your morphs are not as concealed as Holbein's skull. Your morphs are readable instantly.
TG: Nor do I possess the skill of Holbein. I wanted them to be readable from the front were they already have a presence. -One that I have never been able to achieve before in portraiture.
NB: It seems like all art contains that interactive element on some level.
TG: Good art anyway. I also don`t want the idea to be impenetrable to the viewer, and I do enjoy when people get my references -my little "insider jokes" if you will. Such as the skull study of "Tinkerbell".
NB: So the work is driven by humour and the need to manipulate the viewer's gaze.
TG: My humour maybe black, but I don`t need to manipulate anybody -I enjoy making references for people to discover.
NB: But the morphing process changes the traditional manner in which a 2 dimensional picture is viewed.
TG: Yes, but its nothing new, maybe the drawings take on a sculptural element.
NB: It's a process that outside of Holbein is not used often.
TG: Not many can do it I suppose. Or find a contemporary mode for its usage.
NB: There is a combination of morbidity and humour in your work. Why do you find old photographs interesting as source material?
TG: How they relate to the present.
NB: Would you describe yourself as a figurative artist?
TG: Yes, one who survived the lean years and came out stronger.
NB: What has the influence of living in European culture done to change your work?
TG: I ended up in an environment with a strong work ethic. This environment demanded real focus on my work. I guess the old Zwingli mentality of Zurich suits me.
NB: How can you elaborate on the situation in the European art scene now from the perspective of the political climate in relation to the artist and the stylistic demands in relation to current trends in painting?
TG: Firstly, I think a political climate anywhere, good or bad, is material for an artist -he should only be free to express himself. Secondly, In any epoch, stylistic demands are a form of self censorship. I don`t follow trends.
NB: Talk about the medium of charcoal why charcoal?
TG: My grandfather was a coal-miner. No. I have always been better at drawing than painting. The deep black one can achieve with charcoal -it can go into infinity.
NB: Do you have political issues in your work?
TG: They are present yes.
NB: Can you explain a bit?
TG: The viewer should have something to chew on while sipping his white wine -I prefer to take a subtle approach however.
NB: What does a picture like the one about fox news mean to you politically?
TG: It is about cheer-leading for an illegal war.