By Kevin Blake

Tom Torluemke is an enigmatic figure in the Chicago art community. By enigmatic, I do not mean difficult to understand. Or outsider. I mean individual. I mean, unmistakably himself. His work has incredible range–physically as well as conceptually. He chases ideas. He works in symbols. In metaphor. His work is powered by his investigations into himself, and that journey, is clearly part of the narrative he delivers. He reminds me of a fisherman. A patient one. One that understands that its called fishing and not catching for a reason. Here, we have a chat that attempts to unravel his process through a discussion about his latest contribution “American Eye Pull-Up Bar” at The Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art.

“American Eye Pull-Up Bar” 2016 photo courtesy Linda Dorman

Kevin Blake: When we talked about your installation, “American Eye Pull-Up Bar,”  it was glaringly apparent that you had thoroughly vetted this idea in all its possible manifestations. You had considered every angle–you had seen this piece as the artist and as an audience member. I was frantically trying to catch up with each idea as you plowed through a mountain of symbology, metaphor, and purpose. Luckily, I recorded the conversation. As you were talking, I wrote down two statements that I think are critical to understanding how you process your experience of the world. This is what I wrote: “Nothing makes sense, and everything means everything.” To me, this is a profound synthesis of experience(not just your’s) and your installation is a perfect messenger for this sentiment. Can you elaborate on how you make visual language “work” for you while maintaining enough ambiguity to allow for infinite interpretations?

Tom Torluemke: Thanks for having me, and paying such close attention.  The idea has to make me either want to laugh or cry.  I think that deep down it’s the intention or motivation that starts a piece of artwork out on the right course, also a large category of guidelines help; for example, Mirth, Delight, Awe, Originality, Imagination and Mystery.  The above would be a strong foundation–give the artwork a better chance of working, communicating, evoking or eliciting a memorable and moving experience. Synthesizing those ideas or categories into one’s work while avoiding contrivance or losing spontaneity and urgency, is a whole different world of struggles (piles of failures).

So if my intentions are worthy, working with the formal art making process; you know, shapes, colors, forms and whatever technique best suits the idea–I generally draw around a theme; let’s say betrayal or maybe embarrassment. A couple of days, possibly a week or two usually leads to writing ideas down that have spawned off of the drawings.  I do this so I don’t forget all the thinking that took place while I was drawing.  Because drawing for me, is slower than jotting down ideas.

Once I have many drawings, I start to convert them into bold, broad, communicative color and design ideas, you know, this color speaks louder than that color.  That shape is more mysterious than that shape.  In order for the whole damn thing to work, I have to be really jazzed up in the theme, the world I’ve chosen.  That’s where the idea of originality comes in.

Detail: American Eye Pull-Up Bar 2016 photo courtesy Linda Dorman

 

That word for me is the nucleus of the formal creation. Each piece starts it’s own world. The first thought, mark, movement starts it, the origin.  You have to be submersed, consumed by it, that’s how it may have a chance at survival.

As for ambiguity, I pick the surprises, forms that come from the grey, dark, uncertain areas of one’s mind.  If I’ve known about it or I’ve seen it before, I’ve probably come to terms with it, or resolved it already. I don’t need to show that. So if it’s foreign, unusual or uncomfortable it will most likely be ambiguous and filled with unknown potential (symbolic energy).

 

KB: If I understand you correctly, you begin with an idea and those ideas are in a constant state of metamorphosis until you deem a piece of art finished. So, as you seek the surprise in the visual manifestation of an idea, or as you gravitate toward the unknown potential that you identify as symbolic energy, how do your ideas adapt to the object in the process of making?

TT: Through trial and error, many attempts, many mistakes. Coercing the images, shapes and colors in a work of art to potentially mean multiple things, requires a lot of attempts.  Sometimes I’ll keep trying with one set or group of related design ideas. Other times, I’ll make something completely new or different, but it will still be related in theme.  So let’s say the theme is violence, I may try many different designs with a gun over and over searching for something new with that theme.  Then for whatever reason, I’ll do a drawing of two youths shooting each other on a street, behind them is a car and it “triggers” a memory from my teenage years when an old “beater” car of mine dropped it’s muffler.  I had to “tie it up” with a “hanger”.  While I was doing this, the hanger sprung loose and poked me deeply right in the eyeball.  I almost lost my sight. This was one of the many moments of discovery for the American Eye Pull-Up Bar. 

During the making, everything has to be very fluid.  It all has to spill out during the drawing, painting, carving, arranging.  That’s what brings forth the hidden, mysterious special images.  So it was necessary for me to make that contrived, melodramatic drawing of the youths shooting at each other, to spark the broader, fuller idea.

KB:I am drawn to your work specifically for your unflinching loyalty to your intuition–to your past and the value of memory. Your impulses are always present in your work regardless of medium, but in such a large politicized installation such as American Eye Pull-Up Bar, this notion of intuition leads one away from the idea of the singular artist making work by himself and for himself, into more of a response from a witness of political and social injustice. Because installation is a medium by which the viewer becomes physically immersed, your project implicates the onlooker as part of the problem and potential solution to whatever it is we conger in contemplation of this piece. Can you talk about the roll of installation as a medium for dialogue? Does it “work” better than a painting?

Detail: American Eye Pull-Up Bar 2016 photo courtesy Linda Dorman

TT: Silent communication from the piece of art to the viewer, and then back and forth continued dialogue between the viewer and the piece happens with each medium or format. However the cause and effect can be quite different.  An installation is usually seen once or twice, if you’re not a well-known artist, after the show, it’s packed up and stored away.  Even a museum rarely dedicates space for a permanent installation.  So if I’m going to create an installation, it has to be a bit like modern advertising, strong, provocative with subliminal content that seeps into the audience’s mind and soul.  I pretend it just has once chance!  Once the viewer has left the building, you want them to be haunted forever. 

I experienced a piece years ago, in the mid eighties by Jannis Kounellis, where a line of gas jets were sticking out of a long wall, and the jets may have been about six or seven feet apart.  I still think about it. It doesn’t mean you have to hit someone over the head with it, subtle or sublime works. After life is a must.

As for a painting, it also has to grab you and leave you with an image burned into your mind. However with some luck you may sell the painting, it’s hung in someone’s home and stays there for 40 or 50 years.  It has to be the gift that keeps giving, a slow reveal, profound mystery, magnetism you can’t put into words.  Every time the owner gazes upon it the sensation should be a bit different; ageless and mysterious like the Mona Lisa’s smile, Pope Innocent’s expression, Goya’s giant, Bocklin’s Isle of the Dead, Van Gogh’s bedroom, Winslow Homer’s Surf, Hopper’s town, DeKooning’s figures, Lucian Freud’s flesh.

For both painting and installation, I try to be influenced by the outside world and drag something up from inside myself like a memory, happening, feeling or emotion; unite the two, outside and inside.  That’s where the magic is.

Painting may be more difficult because it has the potential to be forever seen. That’s a long time to entertain; everyone gets tired of talking eventually. It just sits there like a Buddha. I suppose if installations had that visibility it would be held to the same standards and they would be equal.

KB: In an exhibition that showcases the work of several artists whose work is brimming with visual information, your installation appears as the most minimal of the lot. Can you talk about how the “less is more” approach to this installation maintains your multi-layered conceptual bent that is so typical of all your work?

Installation View Courtesy Robin Dluzen

TT: I was striving for a simple, iconic,logo-like design composed of a several common elements.  The eyes, the blood, the stairs and the bar plus the not so common, bomb, land mine, football or whatever you call it in the foreground.  The elements were arranged in such a way as to create a visual puzzle with few enough pieces to be memorized–stuck in the viewer’s mind and figured out later if necessary.  At base level, to get stuck with an object in the eyes until they start bleeding is not good! And if you connect to the red, white and blue, that may be all you need to know. Of course, there’s much more but that’s a start.  After listening to the viewer’s interpretations, each different but excellent, (here are a couple examples; Viewer 1: “I think the pull up bar represents Americans trying to pull themselves up out of the mess we’re in.” Viewer 2: “I think the eye represents us, the public, watching the media broadcasting evil to build up fear.”) I don’t think I need to explain everything through words to the viewer because it limits their search, the viewers really do get right at the heart of the matter, even better than I could explain.

KB: So, how do you see this work in relation to the rest of the artists in this exhibition?

TT: I’m very proud to be showing with such strong artists, we lift each other up.  It’s what we all should be doing; expect the best from each other (humankind). It was cool that there were totally unplanned similarities and likenesses throughout.  The short stairs or riser to an altar or area of ritual in mine, Stacia’s and Marcos’. Kathy Weaver used long cones as knee spikes and I used long cones as blood tipped weapons. We each depicted blood as though we learned from the same how-to book.

In content, Marcos and I are often very close, we tell socio-political, sexual narratives from our podium.  His piece with Mary & Child in front of the mushroom cloud is in my opinion the strongest in the show, so relevant now with the rise of evangelical religion in the US as well as the most recent end of the disarmament movement, because of the proposed one trillion dollar nuclear modernization budget.

Installation View Courtesy Robin Dluzen

Kathy Weaver also inspires me, tackling the so frightening blend of technology, electronics and biology.  Robots and nature, burned and sewn paper, what’s not to like? 

Stacia, what playful seriousness.  It made me smile, but also a bit afraid.  It’s the growing organism of color and happiness taking over.  Formally, Stacia’s piece and mine are very related; they each spilled onto the floor.

David Criner’s was like the Matisse of the bunch, like an early spring morning, formal evocation of space and light.  It’s as if you put Rothko, Diebenkorn and Bonington in a blender and out poured David.

KB: What is on the horizon for you? Where can we see some more Tom Torluemke?

TT: I have a hard-hitting political show coming to Firecat Projects in August just before election time, along with a book release of satirical comics and political writings.

Kevin Blake

Kevin Blake is an artist and writer living and working in Chicago.