Paint By Numbers? It’s Not What You Think

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by Cody Tracey

 

In 2014, local artist Thomas Brodhead, an accomplished musicologist, was invited to show his paintings at the K.C. Potter Center—home of Vanderbilt University’s Office of LGBTQI Life. Twenty of his paintings we displayed in the center for the rest of the academic year. For most of this month, a new set of paintings has been on display at the "O" Gallery, and Brodhead was happy to give us an erudite insight into his newest work.

 

We last interviewed you in the early autumn of 2014, when you had an exhibit at Vanderbilt featuring twenty of your works. You currently have an exhibit at the “O” Gallery at the Arcade, this time featuring six works. What have you done with your art since our last conversation, and what distinguishes the pieces currently on display?

I’ve become increasingly more fascinated with mosaics of color, with a special interest in how individual pixels combine to create a total fabric. This was present in my prior work, but it was more “macro” than “micro,” so to speak. And the pieces in the show span that gamut. But there’s a reason my style has become so atomic recently: everything in technology is digitized now, and virtually anything can be expressed numerically. My artwork is reflecting that, at least on one level. Pythagoras was amazingly prescient when he declared “all is number” 2,500 years ago. The truth of that claim is more apparent today than perhaps ever before. And that brings things both wonderful and terrible to us all.

 

What do you mean by that?

Well, as our electronics become increasingly more intertwined with our lives, we become more integrated with their circuitry. That’s “transhumanism,” and many people are troubled by it. The recent Spike Jonze film Her addressed the issue head-on, and it was easily one of the most disturbing and influential films that I’ve seen. If the bits and bytes of a machine could produce a sum total that could pass a Turing test—meaning that if you were to interact with it, you wouldn’t be able to tell whether it were human or not—by extension, then, what are we? Are we not machines ourselves, albeit biological? And is there truly more to us than the sum of our parts? I’ll leave that to the metaphysicians to debate, but in my own craft, I’ve chosen to explore it in the mechanisms of visual perception, specifically in the pixelation and gradation of color.

 

And so that’s why your work is both highly geometric and colorful, with single areas painted with individual colors.

Yes, and there’s precedent for that in one of my influences, Stuart Davis. In his works, though, the areas are quite large; when I shifted to this approach, my areas started large, but have become quite small and labor-intensive to execute. My paintings Chromapotheosis and Tetrac(h)romagnon respectively took 160 hours and 150 hours to complete, soup to nuts. For each, I pencil-sketched a very detailed framework for the painting, and then subjected it to a rigorous color scheme.

 

Well, that brings me to two different questions, first, the titles of your works, and then what inspires your color choices.

Okay, I’ll try to answer those questions in turn, but the answers may coalesce. I’ve always been a lover of language, and word play is central to the written commentary that accompanies each of my works, something we discussed in our last interview. Many of my titles are portmanteaus, original words that are fusions of two or more different words, for example, “Chromapotheosis.” “Chroma” is a color-theory term that is akin to saturation, but it has more to do with the change in a hue from a neutral gray to its most vivid expression. “Apotheosis” has two meanings: one is the elevation of something to its highest development, the other is quite literally the process of deification, the transformation into a god. The literal subject of the painting is a statue of Cupid and Psyche, and if you know the myth, Psyche begins as a mere mortal and is deified when she weds Cupid at the end. And because the coloring of the painting is concerned with the transition of hues from their darkest to lightest chroma, I combined “chroma” and “apotheosis” to title the work “Chromapotheosis” (below).

 

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Okay, that totally makes sense now. But what about Tetrac(h)romagnon?

That one goes deeper into the past than the myths of ancient Greece, and has more meanings contained within it, all related to the painting. The skeleton of the work—the structural element around which I devised a color scheme—is actually a painting of lions found on the walls of the Chauvet caves in France, discovered in 1994 and estimated to be an astonishing 35,000 years old. I was first exposed to the paintings in Werner Herzog’s wonderful documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams. What struck me most was how modern the paintings appear; they could easily be mistaken for the linear drawings of Picasso. And that realization sent a chill down my spine, for I realized that the Cro-Magnon peoples of Europe who lived in those caves were modern humans, no different than you or I. So, that’s the “cromagnon” part of the title. The other part is “chroma", which we just discussed, and which references the graduated use of four principal hues in the work: red, green, blue, and orange. That’s where “tetra,” or “four,” comes into the picture. And there’s been a lot of recent attention paid to “tetrachromats,” people who have cones in their eyes in clusters of four, not the usual three, allowing them to see colors beyond the normal spectrum, much as certain birds and insects do. Thus, the title “Tetrac(h)romagnon” seemed apt.

 

That’s a lot to digest, but there’s a lot going on in the painting. It’s not immediately obvious that there are lions in the image.

And that’s fine…the Chauvet lions were merely a structural device on which I performed a chroma-sonata of sorts.

 

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 Tetrac(h)romagnon (above), Chauvet Lions (below)

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It’s interesting you use the word “sonata,” and it brings up another subject: Your background is in classical music composition and musicology, right?

Yes, and my study of twentieth-century music composition has both informed my paintings and provided me with some interesting techniques I’m exploring. Following the Second World War, many classical composers turned to highly mathematical methods of pitch selection in music composition, and seemed to “paint” their scores with notes more than prior composers had. Often, when those works are analyzed, what’s revealed is a striking visual organization of the elements of the notation on the page. I thought a strange synesthesia had taken place, where the means that would be quite impactful in visual art had been employed for purely aural ends. In the works I’ve executed over the last 20 months or so, I’ve employed some of those compositional devices in the selection, distribution, and combination of colors in my works.

 

Well, there’s obviously more to talk about, but this has been good fodder for a future conversation.

Thanks so much, visual art is on the upswing in Nashville, and I’m honored to be part of it.

 

Brodhead’s art can be viewed online at www.thomasbrodhead.com, and his show at the “O” Gallery at the downtown Arcade, open Saturdays, runs through May 28th.