Paintings by Tony Shore
November 19, 2022 – January 15, 2023
2111 West Sunset Boulevard
Los Angeles, California 90026
Telephone: (310) 428-6975
Curated by Michael Sherman
By STEPHEN WOZNIAK January, 2023
"Imagination without reason produces impossible monsters; with reason, it becomes the mother of the arts, and the source of its marvels."
- Francisco Goya
“I don’t emphasize death. I accept it as part of one’s existence. One is always aware of mortality in life, even in a rose that blooms and then dies.”
- Francis Bacon
Death lies everywhere these days and, of course, it always has. Its sharp contrast with our conscious aspirations and activity in this life makes it poignant enough if we let it. We must accept death next to every moment that we cherish, like a shadowy shrewd friend along for the cliffside joyride. The steep reality is that we naturally don’t have a choice in this matter of accepting death at some point in our life. However, from the death that darkness often denotes, springs forth life that we discover and, in some cases, create in order to shore up the light of hope we use to illuminate the path just ahead.
The new work on view in Tony Shore’s Black Velvet If You Please solo painting exhibition at Carlye Packer in Los Angeles is extraordinary. In many ways, the scenes depicted in them are not, providing seemingly incidental life slices. But I think that’s an important plot point in Shore’s career. For years, he’s drawn heavily on his work-a-day world family history, personal story and localized incidents that touch upon both profane and beautiful elements, which constitute the ever-present – yet often forgotten and mishandled – blue-collar ecology. In this show, Shore has expanded those stories and developed the ability to find all of those uncanny, familiar moments in much further-reaching settings and locations, making the work ultimately more universal and accessible to viewers.
I’ve known about Tony Shore’s work for nearly three decades now. We both graduated from the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, Maryland, where I first saw his paintings. I grew up nearby in a serene, but complex and imperfect suburb, while Tony’s formative years were spent deep inside of the rough-and-tumble city. I was always fascinated by his consistent choice of black velvet – the kind you find in rundown, corner store, crying clown paintings – as a medium over the course of his career. It’s often perceived as a sign of last-ditch kitsch but, on the other hand, communes with the existential black abyss found in a Caravaggio canvas. It’s high, it’s low and every strati of art in between. As is common among numerous of his previous paintings, the work in this exhibition features scenes set after dusk – illuminated by any artificial means necessary to sustain its nightlife, unseemly underbelly, and otherwise alternative societies – a time when the lights go out for the rest of us.
I believe Shore wants to show us this tricky, tense and often troubled world as a way to pay homage to the survival instinct in humanity that we each try to unconsciously maintain or seek, especially in its most primal forms. The stark contrasts presented in the paintings – figure and ground, light and dark, opposing saturated colors, and the conflicted environments of the denizens who populate, live in or work their way through for survival – set the tone Shore seeks for us. It is a place for acceptance, contemplation and arresting emotional experience. It also provides a type of fright relief that the night represents to the many on the outs and sometimes to those just barely inside.
The fourteen works in this exhibition radiate certain majesty, magic and a sidelong kiss of death – or at least the gorgeous swan song just before it. Some look like still images from modern noir thriller feature motion pictures, while others offer stark fractional glimpses that only a casual walk down a back alley could capture. One particular acrylic and velvet painting, HI-TEK, from 2022, really stuck with me after the show’s opening. It features a young man with blackened eye sockets sitting behind the wheel of a car, looking in his rearview mirror and surrounded by rich, florescent, rainbow neon light that radiates from the sign of a nail spa, which is obviously closed. Just behind him on the right is a shifty, intense, ball-capped, bearded man who approaches him. It’s clear that some critical business is about to transpire; whether a nickel-and-dime drug deal, the passing of pertinent information, or a receipt of strident ramblings from that of the mentally unstable through an open car window. Perhaps, the driver just needs a break from the acid test of nightlife but doesn’t find it here. The painting is a gorgeous study in the many contrasts mentioned above, the wide format cinema frame giving us an extra moment of space to look around at a scene that in real life would invite no spectators.
Another painting, Double Rainbow, from 2022, shows us two similar but unmatched, wheeled street kiosks with stacks of multicolored stuffed animals, hats, bags and other brightly hued cheap commercial goods that sit below rainbow cart umbrellas on the sidewalk. We see the back of one vendor and the profile of the other side-by-side, identities obscured. The oh-so-adorable quality of the merchandise and lit dome of the umbrellas belie what lurks just outside of this oasis in the darkness. It’s certainly not the time of day kids would point to their favorite buy-it-for-me-mommy plush toy. It’s almost as if the fuzzy animals are there to protect the vendors, keeping the evil that might poke its head into the scene at bay. Perhaps, it is even a bulwark of all that represents “good” in its own way.
The third painting that drew my attention is different than most featured in the show. Closing Time, from 2022, is a true vignette to me. It almost looks like a tiny stage, replete with props and overhead lighting. Based on a photograph the artist took in Urumqi, China, it features a small open-air food bar where the chef, donning a cute pink apron and oversized yellow rubber gloves, scrapes the fry grill down at the end of the night. Again, such a funny contrast. This muscular Chinese woman, who likely cooked for a sweaty continuous shift throughout the evening, carefully cleans away the day and starts surface preparation alone with just a wall of colorfully bottled sauces, sodas and a bank of empty barstools out front. Her closed eyes make me think of praying hillside Buddhist monks who seek peace in the everyday rituals of sweeping, cleaning and enjoying a walking meditation. It is a serene moment free from the bustle that I’m sure sustained the kinetic business of the bar before this still image glimpse was captured.
Tony Shore’s realistic works seem traditional in many formal ways, while the moment he chooses to examine seems to happen without us, something vastly different than a Michelangelo Biblical highlight or a royal Vermeer portrait. Yet, we are afforded this private, privileged view – like a secret revealed – whether about ourselves, our neighbors or people just like us all the way around the world. From Francisco Goya to Francis Bacon, Shore is among great company who use the blackness of the night, darkness of the ground and strenuous life trials that make the figures that pass through his important little scenes come alive just before their “La petite mort” or little deaths. Viewed altogether in this show, these works remind us of the common plight we all undergo. Some are elective and some are more inevitable – but they are part of this world we can’t always escape. They evoke in viewers our common mistakes, desires and the interesting outcomes that define our struggle – and occasional success – in this life that runs right next to death. Luckily, Tony Shore transforms our experience with ample compassion for and understanding of the fringe that makes up the world he briefly acquires – and then recreates. WM
Stephen Wozniak is a professional fine artist, writer, and motion picture and television actor based in Los Angeles, California. He earned a B.F.A. from the Maryland Institute College of Art and attended Johns Hopkins University. To learn more go to: www.stephenwozniakart.com and www.stephenwozniak.com. Follow Stephen on Instagram at @stephenwozniakart.view all articles from this author