Sex and Mystery: Paintings of Zachary Thornton
That Zach paints from photos rather than live models, preferring to work in solitude at his Mill Centre studio, might only reinforce this idea. Except, we learn that many of his compositions arise from combinations of photographs, one perhaps of a girlfriend, the other maybe taken years earlier, a photo of a house, which he then melds together on the canvas. He will also stage the photos he needs, positioning his subject under a streetlight on a summer night, say, which he then will bring back to the easel. "I'm looking for a kind of complexity," Zach says of this process, "a mix of feelings--happy, sinister--and a kind of mysteriousness. I like having three or four possibilities of what might be going on in the painting."
It's not then the bare facts, the subject and her surroundings, that Zach is after, but a mood, a feeling, a story that envelops the painting. A major inspiration for Zach is film. "Whenever I watch a movie," he says, "I'm thinking about composition, framing, what's going on around the characters." This interest in movies is reflected in the fact that many of his paintings are done in film aspect ratio, the 16 by 9 format of a movie screen. The effect this has is to open the painting up, provide space around his subjects, the twilight of a suburban neighborhood, the lights of an approaching car. This space, the landscape rendered in light and shadow, a feeling of things happening just "off stage," contributes tension to the work, mystery. "I have the feeling that someone else is there beyond the edge of the painting, maybe it's me, or you, the viewer," he says. "And I like to think of these women as slightly dangerous."
In his efforts to create this tension, Zach finds himself wrestling with the idea of control, a desire to render his subjects in fine detail, but with a competing impulse for looseness as well. One of his favorite painters is John Singer Sargent and the influence is obvious, the still moment surrounded by light and expectancy, the attention to the eyes and posture, the detail, the revelation of personality. "People are what it's all about," he says. "The subject has to be there for it to mean something to me." And in looking at his work we feel this investment in character, the drawing out of emotion and thought in the women's bodies and faces. Yet, though not as striking or immediately apparent to the eye is the time he has taken with the hazy forms of buildings and trees, the half-fading, half-emerging atmosphere at the wings of the canvas, that just-dark mystery Zach says he remembers so vividly from childhood.
And it's interesting that this tension between realism and ambivalence, control and lack, is reflected in Zach's process as well as his products. As a painter, he feels the need to improve with every work, for each new canvas to be a bit better than the last. Yet, as he says, at some point he invariably goes wrong. "I get to the place where the painting is going okay, but then I get tight, and I mess up." This, he says, is part of the method. "I have to break the painting along the way so that I can come back to it later, fix it, and make it better." This moment of breaking, this loss of command, brings vitality, a fresh vision to the canvas. From there, he sets to work again, building character, story, complexity, sex and mystery.