IMAGES AND IDEAS: TREVOR GUTHRIE
By NOAH BECKER, APR 2016
One can conceive of almost nothing so precious which is not made far richer and much more beautiful by association with painting. Ivory, gems and similar expensive things become more precious when worked by the hand of the painter. Gold worked by the art of painting outweighs an equal amount of unworked gold. — Leon Battista Alberti, from his treatise on the theory of painting "Della Pittura", 1434-5
Trevor Guthrie (b. 1964, Scotland, lives and works in Zurich CH) makes large format charcoal drawings on paper, exploiting the medium to its full potential. Charcoal has traditionally been a medium used by art school drawing classes for studies, gestures and sketches. Seldom do we see fully finished works in charcoal presented as art unless by great masters and even then, charcoal drawings were made only as studies for finished paintings. There are several contemporary artists I could point to that also work with drawing as their primary medium, but I would prefer to focus on Guthrie’s work as opposed to branching off into other histories and comparisons.
Yet it does seem more relevant (if comparisons were to be made), that those comparisons be in relation to historical works of art as opposed to any current influence. In this sense his large pieces utilize the old master`s widescreen cinematic effect. Historically speaking large-scale works of art like massive old master paintings functioned as motion pictures do today. Crowds of onlookers would gather and study these large surfaces and follow a narrative or mythology presented in the images. Guthrie is not an illustrator of a single narrative or mythology and indeed finds ways to break down the narrative and distort the mythology. A dedicated student of art history, painting and drawing technique, politics, religion and things unknown, Guthrie has found his way into the international art scene slightly later than some. The following progression from his early art school days (where I first met him), to the present moment gives us additional context about his approach, ideas and his fondness for late lunches and good scotch.
Our early art school days together in 1985 started with a series of lunches, bottomless cups of coffee and discussions about art. We were fellow classmates at Victoria College of Art in British Columbia, Canada, then later at the Glenn Howarth Drawing Academy also in Victoria, BC. I witnessed Trevor’s early development beginning in 1985 but in actual fact I was much more involved with making my own charcoal drawings and Trevor was working on pastel drawings about televangelism and human cult behavior such as fire walking. We were both put through classes in classical life drawing by our early drawing professors and since graduating art college in 1988 Trevor and I have continued our ongoing coffee dialogues about the making and development of images through a broad analysis of art history, specifically as it pertains to the tradition of painting. I remember the Glenn Howarth classes where we were engaged in 12 hour drawing marathons. It was during these marathon sessions that Guthrie chose to work exclusively in charcoal for all three 12-hour sessions of non-stop figure drawing. The series he produced during these marathons put forward to me the main qualities one can currently see in his works.
These early drawings turned on a light bulb in my head giving me a glimpse of what was to come. What did arrive years later is Guthrie`s shattering of pre-conceived notions of drawing and the opening of a new chapter in the history of two dimensional works on paper. But instead of presenting a text here full of praise, let‘s dig deeper into the ways in which Trevor Guthrie formulates his images.
One of the most important aspects of Guthrie‘s process is the finding of ideas for new images. Guthrie has a keen sense of his time and what existence means to him. His way of articulating this is by presenting us with iconic images and ideas, which place us in the middle of his world. Finding these golden ideas is the difficult task and requires much research. It is common now for artists to use digital tools in the production and preparation of source images and in Guthrie‘s case it was his remixing of found source material using Photoshop that lead to many ideas. This situation is beneficial to an artist when used to its full extent: “The technical aspect is the simple part, I do the drawing by hand from a print out of the source material. I usually work on at least three pieces at the same time.” Guthrie says. Thus his grab bag of images is found online in our era. The wrangling and re-mixing of historical and non-historical imagery is what this involvement is about — an artist must play both monkey and organ grinder to the gods.
In one sense it is needed that a picture also have convincing light within it without becoming just a mere photographic reproduction or photorealist attempt. Vermeer comes to mind when thinking about this kind of explicit realism. When seen in reproduction Guthrie‘s drawings, like Vermeer, can at times make the viewer feel they are looking at a photograph. But Guthrie is not a photorealist and neither was Vermeer. “I loath to describe the work in terms like photo-realism. Up close, the drawing is often a symphony of mistakes that orders itself from a certain viewing distance,” Guthrie says. Perhaps what viewers are responding to is the psychological light — the actual essence of an object transcending mimesis and entering the spiritual realm. This process is about the right positioning and conception of space and a willingness to allow one`s metaphoric monkey its own free will. Great paintings and drawings do this and great films do this as well. It is the moment when you forget that you are watching a film or looking at a painting but become totally immersed in an image or moving picture — then in a flash something significant happens. Digital tools can cut through much of the signal and noise navigating new pathways for an artist.
Pathways which brought Guthrie to an early obsession with Caravaggio`s deep dark areas. This study of light and dark overtook Guthrie at one point. “I did copies from Velasquez, Holbein and Caravaggio. The old masters were the bar that I aspired to technically.” At the time he made these old master copies, the idea of admiring the old masters was old hat and out of fashion. The art world of the early 1990`s was not terribly concerned with paintings, specifically great works from the past. But Guthrie continued doing copies from the masters and was dedicated to them. I recall seeing a series of Vancouver city landscapes made with oil paint, which confronted the influence of Edward Hopper on Guthrie‘s early style. “In my early paintings, I could really relate to Edward Hopper`s empty urban scenes and lonely figures,” Guthrie says. But to me his Hopper phase is an anecdote in relation to his larger body of work. After all we try to transcend our influences — not get swallowed up by them.
This is how an artist learns to finish their pictures and find that elusive moment of recognition and making something new. Guthrie`s work is all about that moment of recognition, that confrontation between viewer and subject — in fact he enjoys the confrontational aspect of his works. He also confronts his demons in his work and exposes them to the world. This brings up the idea of the viewer representing the voyeur. It is almost as though Guthrie is hiding behind a curtain secretly watching people`s reaction to his images. Historically it is the viewer that acts as voyeur and in this case the situation is almost reversed during a confrontation with a Guthrie drawing. A Guthrie chandelier confronts one with shimmering beauty or a tough politically charged subject that resonates differently. In this sense Guthrie considers his works on many levels beyond the mere technical. “I am interested in the medial debate between science & religion, political issues (American politics in particular) as well as art history,” Guthrie states. His recent works have dealt with a mix of themes such as crocodiles on beds to sea creatures sailing through sunsets. He seems to enjoy the idea that he is a man against the elements, a man on the edge of science, politics and reason — all the while translating his visions into pictures. The concept that humanity could tame the elements and make something of out of nothing is not a new concept. “I love the idea of the caveman 50 thousand years ago who took a burnt stick and illustrated his world in charcoal. I have technology at my fingertips that would make me a god in the caveman`s eye, but still use the same medium as he did,” says Guthrie.
The idea of history painting or having an interest in old paintings is something that American artists must face in their work. Any artist that comes from a North American experience yet follows an interest in great European art will deal with this situation. Although Guthrie was born in Scotland, his experience comes from formative years and awakenings in Canada. “Appropriation for me is a subtle business — I will ruminate on a found image till it has chosen to be part of my repertoire,” Guthrie says. In our era we have reached a new moment of thought and a new moment of making things. As Oscar Wilde states in the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, “The artist is the creator of beautiful things. To reveal art and conceal the artist is art`s aim.” Guthrie says: “With a variety of sources and sometimes with only the title as clue to the intent, I enjoy revealing obscure art historical references as well as other cloaked meanings in my work.”Guthrie says, “I have a fetish for detail in combination with dark humor and (given my limited pedagogy), make an attempt at wit while illustrating the ironic, weird and sad comedy of the human experience — occasionally highlighting history that repeats itself — a few pieces have even been slightly prophetic or at least in the mode of coincidence is inevitable”. Guthrie’s detailed images will endure the test of history and find their place in the story of art. In the meantime it continues to be a pleasure watching his work change and unfold in the public and private worlds of art. WM
Trevor Guthrie Charcoal on Paper, curated by Gian Enzo Sperone, exhibited at Galeria Sperone, Sent, Switzerland December 30th, 2015 - February 15th, 2016
Noah Becker is an artist and the publisher and founding editor of Whitehot Magazine. He shows his paintings internationally at museums and galleries. Becker also plays jazz saxophone. Becker's writing has appeared in The Guardian, VICE, Garage, Art in America, Interview Magazine, Canadian Art and the Huffington Post. He has written texts for major artist monographs published by Rizzoli and Hatje Cantz. Becker directed the New York art documentary New York is Now (2010). Becker's new album of original music "Mode For Noah" was released in 2023.
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