Greenwich Art Society, Greenwich CT

PART 2 of A CONVERSATION WITH ARTIST TOM BRENNER

Shauna: Thank you, Tom, for taking the time to continue the conversation we started last month about judging a show. (See Past Feature Pages below to read the first part of this interview.) You recently judged our spring show, Merriment, Magic and Music, at the

Greenwich Y and I am interested to hear how it went. First of all, did you have any overall observations about the show?

Tom: I thought that the two strongest categories, regardless of where the prizes were awarded, were photography and mixed media. The greatest number of truly skillful works was found in those two categories.

Shauna: How many art works were submitted?

Tom: 95. A large number of them were photographs and very few were drawings, which is typical.

Shauna: Does it bother you that there were so few drawings?

Tom: When I first came here, I often worked in graphite and love the medium. Sadly, in the realm of competitions, drawing seems to be held in “lower esteem” than, say,

oil paintings. I don’t find that position to be particularlyvalid and would like to see more drawings.

Shauna: What about the paintings?

Tom: Of the paintings, there were slightly more oils than watercolors. The thinnest category was sculpture, also not unusual. There were only 3 or 4 sculptures.

Shauna: Did you find having a “theme” for the show a help or a hindrance in judging it?

Tom: When I first started looking at the works, I asked if the theme was something I should strongly take into account as many works were only peripherally connected

to the theme while others were quite literally about music or magic. I was told I could do as I wished and I decided I thought it was more important to judge the works on their

quality rather than on how well they fit into the theme. Perhaps it would have been fairer to stick scrupulously to works closely related to the theme. I don’t know. Some people might look at the show and think: “Had I known the theme could be interpreted as loosely as this, I would have entered something”. Still, people didn’t seem to be overly constricted by the theme.

Shauna: Do you think having themes for shows in general is a good idea?

Tom: It depends on the theme. In galleries, they often have a theme of some kind, especially in group shows. For juried shows, I think it is a good idea to have an occasional show with a theme, just so long as the theme is not too restrictive. However, I’m not sure a theme elicits the best work from the membership. This is particularly true when people take the theme quite literally. Generally, I think people should show their best work and shows that somehow bring it out serve the purpose best. On the other hand, having a theme can give a little continuity to the show.

Shauna: Did it do so in this particular case?

Tom: Yes, especially in the photography category. Many photographs were very oriented around the theme: musicians in parks, performances, etc. When it got around to paintings,

the connection was more tenuous.

Shauna: In our previous interview, we spoke about your early beginnings in photography. As there were many photographs entered into this show, was there anything that you found to be of special interest about the group of photographs as a whole?

Tom: Yes, I really related to them. I take photos myself of musicians in the street, etc., and there were many of those. Photography is a perfect medium for the subject matter.

There was one, (it received an honorable mention) which was a photo of skaters underneath Christo’s Gates in Central Park. It is a wonderful and very memorable photograph.

Shauna: In our last interview, there was a question I failed to ask and maybe it makes sense to take a little side trip and look at it now. I can think of many parallels between the rise of photography as an art form and the new technologies we havetoday, many that use photography as a point of departure. In this era of works of "fine" art being created with computer technology, such as Photoshop and Illustrator, do you make a distinction, in your own art or in the art of others, between "commercial art" and "fine art"? I'd be interested to hear what you have to say about the relationships between computer art, photography and traditional fine art media both historically and in the present time.

Tom: The most obvious distinction between commercial and fine art is that, in the case of commercial art, the theme or objective of the piece is determined not by the artist, but by

the client. The formal and technical aspects of the work he or she creates rely on the same elements as a piece of fine art (value, color, etc.), but these are utilized in order to

communicate a message that is, in a certain sense, separate from the image. A work of fine art should be an expression of the artist’s own (primarily) formal concerns.

As far as the place of photography and digital technology is concerned“ I do, necessarily, rely on my own photography to capture some of my subject matter - a crowd in Central Park, for example. If we look back at the aids used by certain artists (Vermeer, Durer, etc.) in trying to achieve spatial or visual effects, I feel quite certain that they would have taken advantage of photography, had it existed, as did later artists (Degas, Eakins, Francis Bacon), whose work followed the advent of photography.

In my fine art, I sometimes use digital means to manipulate photographic elements before proceeding with the painting or pastel, but I have never used the computer as a tool to execute the final work of art. I am not opposed to artists doing so, but I have a genuine love for the interaction between pastel and paper and paint and canvas. Some programs are able to simulate this interaction, but this is quite different from what happens physically when using traditional media.

Working commercially, I will execute illustrations on the computer,as this greatly enhances my ability to make the evisions that an Art Director or Editor will, inevitably, request.

Shauna: Was there any computer art entered in the Merriment, Magic and Music show?

Tom: Yes. There were 5 or 6. I thought they were well done: restrained and not full of effects.

Shauna: Last time, we also spoke about the difficulties you have when you are judging a show. You said (and I

paraphrase) that judging a show is often not much fun for you as the process of elimination is painful. What was it like this time?

Tom: It was not fun. When you have to reject half of what is there, it is very difficult. At first I was overwhelmed. The space where I was viewing the art is small and it was hard to see everything. I wanted to be as inclusive as possible and asked the Greenwich Art Society staff present if I could initially limit the competition to one work per entrant. They thought this was a good idea and so, when an artist had submitted 2, I took what I thought to be the better of the 2. Unfortunately, that meant I eliminated some pieces that were more skillful than others that remained. You have to do it one way or another and that was the choice I made.

Shauna: Do you think it is a good idea generally for the Art Society to limit entrants to one piece per person?

Tom: No. Other judges might make the opposite decision and it would be equally valid.

Shauna: I know it is a ticklish question as you teach at the Greenwich Art Society Studio School and are also an artist in the area, but did you recognize any of your student’s or colleague’s work and how did you deal with that?

Tom: I recognized people’s work in a few cases but it didn’t get in the way. I just focused on the skillfulness and expressivity of the works and let the art be my guide.

Shauna: Did you run into anything that you would classify as a pet peeve or annoyance?

Tom: Not really to the level of a pet peeve. It’s subjective, but I do feel that while people don’t want to spend a lot of $ on framing, at a certain point, a frame can, one way or another, distract from the impression of the piece. It’s not always a matter of being cheap or bad. Framing and matting should set the piece off. It should never distract, but I would never discard something on that basis. In judging the show, I ignored it. It’s the art that counts.

That being said, as an artist, I think framing is very important. The frame should suit the art and be quietly classy. I’ve tried to develop a presentation style that is an integral part of my work so that the art has its own “look” both in terms of the piece and the framing. I’ve found this to be especially important in group gallery shows from the standpoint of cohesiveness. Personally, I am opposed to white mats and even the white of the paper showing. I find bright white to be incredibly distracting. I prefer cream or light beige.

Shauna: Talk to me about where you go in the area for your framing needs.

Tom: Let’s face it, framing is expensive but a truly suitable and excellent frame really improves the appearance of a painting. (Admittedly, one runs the risk of having someone dismiss your work because they hate the frame. But that is another subject. You just have to suit yourself.) I try to save on frames by getting them wholesale and eliminating the middleman. There are two places in Central Falls, Rhode Island that I patronize and really like. LPR Framing and Steve Motyka. Both do very nice metal leafing. I think Motyka does the best gold leaf (and is more expensive) and LPR’s “other metal” leaf frames are the best in that category. Both places are interesting to visit as you can observe the craftsmen carving the frames, painting them with red clay sizing and applying the leaf.

Shauna: Thank you! for sharing this information. Let’s turn now to the awarding of prizes – always a fun part. There was such a huge disparity in the number of entrants in each category in this show that it begs the question about awarding prizes on the basis of media. What do you think?

Tom: I like to have prizes in various categories with a Best in Show. The day I judged this show, I had a piece entered in a show in Fairfield. I learned at the last minute that I had won Best in Show so right now I REALLY think that is a good method! I do think having categories makes judging easier as one doesn’t have to compare apples with oranges.

I enjoyed awarding the prizes. The first place went to an acrylic painting reminiscent of early 20th century style. I actually did know the artist, which gave me some pause, but it was SO WELL DONE! It fit the theme and was painterly and well drawn. The mood was very strong. Expressive and skillful. Beautiful. It was a standout.

Second Place went to a graphic in a completely different style: abstracted, linear, simple like a Picasso. Expressive, skillful and beautiful.

Third Place was toughest. I was choosing between several photographs of completely different styles. They were all wonderful and worthy. I ended up choosing the one that was very dramatic and spontaneous. It made a big impact.

It’s funny but, although I did not set out to do anything in particular with the prizes, I ended up choosing 3 very different works vis-à-vis media, style and content.

Shauna: In parting, do you have any words of wisdom for us?

Tom: It is true for all artists on every level: when you enter a show you have to know that your work might not be chosen for any number of reasons that were unforeseeable at the time you entered. Being rejected always hurts just as winning is always exhilarating. The idea is to stay balanced, enjoy your work and deal with the winning and losing as best you can.

Shauna: Thanks, Tom.

 

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Tom Brenner Painting
Tom Brenner

 

Tom Brenner Painting

Apples & Pears

by Tom Brenner

 

Tom Brenner Painting

Cows in Burgundy

by Tom Brenner

 

Tom Brenner Painting

Morning Shift

by Tom Brenner

 

Tom Brenner Painting

Silent Moment

by Tom Brenner

 

 

 

 

 
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