Brooklyn-based Canadian painter Tim Kent discusses his Swagger portraits, the cinematic genius of Stanley Kubrick, and his lively friendships with filmmaker Jay Bulger and actor Adrian Grenier“I studied linguistics for a while and I got a good grip on how it was supposed to work, but I don’t necessarily agree that language is the way that art needs to work.”

Tim Kent Studio- painters palette

Tim Kent Studio- painters palette

Heather Zises: Why portraits?

Tim Kent: Because they are awesome. It (portraiture painting) is such a dead thing that no one ever has anymore, or if they have them, they are really awful.  So I figured, I might as well make them ultra awful and ultra wonderful at the same time. So I make these women in these ridiculous costumes flouncing around; it’s kind of fun, it’s ostentatious.  It’s a weird thing in America, we have this real strange hang up on how we sort of want to present ourselves, and in a weird way it is sort of like Kehinde Wiley got it right. He takes these photographs of these famous black icons from the world—both entertainment and world leaders—and puts very baroque things around them. He gets it right because it’s fantasy, its fun, its playful and also like eye candy, but what you don’t get out of it–at least what I don’t get out of it—is that it is not formal enough…the compositions haven’t been formalized enough and it more like putting wallpaper behind these characters. And he has too big a factory at this point (so there is no trace of the artist’s hand in his work) and therefore it loses its tactility. Conversely, what I wanted to do is take these great paintings by Giovanni Boldini or Pompeo Batoni or any of those “swagger portraits” and kind of riff on that a bit.

HZ: In your terms, can you please define what you mean by a “swagger portrait”?

TK: The “swagger” portrait is a style of portraiture; it’s almost a romantic style of portraiture where there is literally a swagger. The person is kind of in the moment, it’s completely hokey, but it’s not this sort of standard “I’m looking at you.”  And this is the thing that American portraiture does: you have this academy, and they train you how to make a portrait but they don’t actually train you in the school about the design ideology. The language of Batoni for example, you go into his studio and he’d dress you up in all of this fabulous clothing, which he would rent out and he would put in in sort of a stock pose and then create this portrait.

Tim Kent, Dress Maker's Muse, 2012, Oil on linen, 84 in x 60 in (213.36 cm x 152.4 cm), with arts writer Louise Nicholson

Tim Kent, Dress Maker’s Muse, 2012, Oil on linen, 84 in x 60 in (213.36 cm x 152.4 cm), with arts writer Louise Nicholson

HZ: That sounds almost like photography.

TK: Totally. And there is something really fun about that, playing dress up. And its kind of a counter position to what I usually do in my practice, which is the more rigorous, geometric architectural renderings. It’s a bit of an escape for me from those parameters.

HZ: You got me thinking about the stoic portrait—similar to an old Chinese family photo—where everyone has these blank expressions versus a more John Singer Sargent style—

TK: Yes- that is a “swagger portrait!”

HZ: Are you familiar with Irish painter Sir John Lavery? He is another painter I think could qualify as a “swagger portraitist.”

TK: Absolutely.

HZ: And it seems like these painters are no longer relevant, and are forgotten now.

TK: Yes, and it’s sort of a painting nerd thing—it is one of those things where if you like the history of Western painting—and that is not to say that I don’t absolutely adore Japanese and Chinese painting as they are very different in many respects—the amount of detail and complication and sophistication that go into 18th century Japanese animal prints for example is amazing—but I was first schooled on The Met’s Western European Collection. And it kind of peaks around 1910, around the advent of Modernism where all this really big bravado, ego, became really kitschy and then it kind of died out as progressive Modernism came in…And today this is something that is really quite dead and in my opinion that is pretty awful.

HZ: Is there humor in these portraits?

TK: Yes. They are not meant to be serious at all. And that is what makes it fun for me. They are the ponciest things in the world!

Tim Kent Studio: Self Portrait of Ponce

Tim Kent Studio: Self Portrait of Ponce

HZ: You commented that these swagger portraits are a counterbalance to the architectural paintings that you create.

TK: Yes. They actually come from it.

HZ: How so?

TK: I visit castles and mansions in the United Kingdom and I can’t help but look at the vast collections of paintings on the walls. Part of my attraction to this sort of imagery is that each one of these works has some sort of personal value—the actual objects themselves. There are reasons why these objects are in these spaces.  The placement of certain things and the artwork is a part of it. And they are all masterpieces!

Tim Kent conversing with collector LaVon Kellner about his recent architectural painting, Hall of Mirrors, 2012, Oil on linen, 120 in x 72 in (304.8 cm x 182.88 cm)

Tim Kent conversing with collector LaVon Kellner about his recent architectural painting, Hall of Mirrors, 2012, Oil on linen, 120 in x 72 in (304.8 cm x 182.88 cm)

HZ: A lot of your interiors are very specific. I was reading about your process and how you work with digital photographs and then you also employ a computer program to create drafts.

TK: Google has a program called SketchUp, which I have been using for years. A friend of mine, Dave Whitworth, is one of the first architectural animators. He runs a company called Architect Media based both here and in China, and he is important to my practice because he helped me push things a bit further. So, I visit houses in England—sometimes I get asked, other times I ask them—and I work in their homes for a short period of time. I extensively photograph these estates. I have an assistant who helps me photograph these works and I then take them in and begin to compose them into these spaces and images that I really like.  I often find that I need to create a replica of the space in the 3D model, because that allows me to play with that space now. And when I get that model, I can then transfer it to a canvas. Once I transfer it to the canvas, the whole thing falls apart because you have to paint it and layers of paint happen, and it requires a lot of work to make it look good. So, to get it onto the canvas is part one, and part two is getting it to look interesting. Sometimes I just use an image and paint from that.

HZ: So you work both ways; you work from a photograph and you also work live.

TK: Yes…I like the construction part, I like creating the reality and I like the lines. I do all sorts of painting. I get models coming into the studio and I paint them on location, immediately, and that is the “fun” aspect of my painting process, and I won’t commit too much to them as sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t…but when I am making these interiors and I am in these spaces, I have a limited amount of time. Sometimes they (the patron) will give me the house and let me stay for a couple of days and I can really investigate and see things that I would not usually—or that no one else—would usually see. But there is so much information to have, that I just have to keep working.

HZ: Indeed your work is very layered and embedded with semiotics. A recent article about you mentioned your interest of the concept of a picture within a picture, a story within a story etc.

Tim Kent Studio- works in progress

Tim Kent Studio- works in progress

TK: Well that is the idea. And this applies to both the portraits and the interiors. When you are creating representational artwork, you are always stuck to this idea of realism and that has a basis in traditional artwork. Art is mimetic—it’s literally copying reality. Conversely, when you look at Luc Tuymans’ work you realize its not mimetic at all it’s a reproduction of a reproduction. But in a sense I am doing the same kind of thing that Tuymans is doing but I’m doing it with different structures. He wants to keep it minimal and ultra modern, and I don’t. I like the lushness. I like the thickness of it all. I think in Modernism we have managed to reduce things to the point of complete arbitrary reading…I don’t want it to be arbitrary, I want it to be full of ideas, and I want there to be certain signs or constructions that are definitely there that have to be worked around. And that is why I think that making these ridiculous swagger portraits is a lot of fun. I have to find a better name for a swagger portrait! It sounds really boring.

HZ: You have made reference to several filmmakers in previous interviews and again today.  What are your thoughts on Stanley Kubrick? Any of his films inspire you rather particularly?

TK: The style of The Shining! It’s great because this space becomes this ominous entity in which these characters are playing out their lives.  Those spaces are creepy! They share the same sensibility of my paintings.  Another film that I consider to be fabulous is Paths of Glory with Kirk Douglas. It is perfectly edited and it is perfectly shot. The dialogue is terse and direct…its how you tell a story perfectly. And I must make mention of his masterpiece, 2001 Space Odyssey. The scene where the spaceship is coming into dock and it takes about ten minutes for the whole scene to unfurl and slowly things begin to sync up—this long slit begins to sync up with this tiny object—its cinematically beautiful. It’s shot from all these different angles; it’s unreal! And the last scene with the wide-angle rooms is beautiful, weird and creepy. Kubrick’s eye was amazing because he was a really good photographer. If you watch any of the documentaries on Kubrick, you see him with his eyepiece and he is on a quest for the perfect odd angle. It’s the same thing that Orson Welles did with Citizen Kane, where he would actually chop open the floor, get these massive cameras down into these caverns and go down low enough so scenes could be filmed “up”. The end result was to get really stark, hard angles.  It was really about the shot. And elements of that technique is something I am beginning to incorporate more now into my own works—I’m beginning to really push the angles, push the space, and construct the space way more now. I was always very conservative before, now I enjoy a looser grip on my brush.

Tim Kent, The Marble Hall at Petworth, 2007, Oil on linen, 30 in x 36 in (76.2 cm x 91.44cm)

Tim Kent, The Marble Hall at Petworth, 2007, Oil on linen, 30 in x 36 in (76.2 cm x 91.44cm)

HZ: With the result being more surface tension or just a more dynamic piece?

TK: A more dynamic piece. There is so much more information I could put into my paintings without putting so much information in—as in creating more psychological space. That’s the important thing about my interiors is that they are 100% about a psychological space. Some of them are pretty, but the good ones are really about you (the viewer) entering into them and having some sort of an imaginative free play, so your brain just goes into this weird landscape for a while and you can actually get lost in the idea of constructed space. I’m currently learning about how to deconstruct it, and reconstruct it, which is cool.

HZ: This is making me think of Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray…and our earlier conversation that ties in the idea of a story within a story and a picture within a picture.

TK: The idea of synchronized realities, or a synchronic reality so that there is a play between what is reality and what is not reality is really cool.

HZ: Back to simulacrum again!

TK: I studied linguistics for a while and I got a good grip on how it was supposed to work, but I don’t necessarily agree that language is the way that art needs to work. I think there is a linguistic issue from which today’s society is currently suffering. Words are arbitrary, and they are constructed and agreed upon in language groups.  We create terms in order to fit in larger ideas and these larger ideas become compressed into multisyllabic words. And then that word puts a lid over a larger idea, an idea that cannot be expressed in any other way. And in any sort of representational art—an art that feels like it has an analytic idea—you can describe what you are seeing and we can agree on what we are describing but it might not actually get to all the points of it. There might be finer points involved that we will never be able to get to…yet. We have yet to develop a psycho-linguistic system or an emotive linguistic system. Until then, we are stuck with words, which are actually quite basic and tough. Words get you up to a point but then they break down. Looking at pictures and looking at words is a different experience.  And I think a lot of languages have been imposed onto art more so than the art can actually move, but I do like the idea of a dislocated observer and I like the idea of a dislocated framework. The description of a point between two points, and all of those spaces within them, all of those coordinates are all random but they exist. Somehow I think there is a connection between them all…there can be signs of it in the painting itself with these points. I’ve depicted this on a few paintings recently.

HZ: Speaking of film, how did you meet actor Adrian Grenier?

Tim Kent in the studio with actor Adrien Grenier

Tim Kent in the studio with actor Adrien Grenier

TK: I’ve known him for 20 years. I met him walking around Central Park one day. He had his guitar with him and I had my bass so we started kicking beats that day, and then began to play music together.

HZ: He commissioned you to paint portrait.  Why did you title it Narcissus?

TK: It was a collaboration piece. Grenier picked it out. He had this Waterhouse painting he loved so much for his documentary on Teenage Paparazzo  (a documentary about a fourteen year old skateboard paparazzo). It’s good because he does a fairly good flip of going from the observed to the observer—you know the idea of the simulacrum object—and he does a good job with the object flipping in the film.  So with the narcissism portrait, here is this character that looks like him, Narcissus is busy looking into the water while Echo is hiding by the tree, and then he wanted all these paparazzos to be coming at him in the composition. So I found all these great shots from Fellini’s 8 ½ and I specifically used shots from this because there is a great scene in the beginning where Guido is getting off an airplane and there are hundreds of paparazzi around (the term “paparazzi” comes from the Italian term “mosquito” as in this little thing that zips around you and flies) and because the scene is so blatantly paparazzi I thought that would be a good thing to use so I inserted them into the background—that’s where all these cameramen are coming from…and that was it.

HZ: Speaking of celebrity, I watched your Driving With Jay (Jay Bulger) video on YouTube this morning.

Tim Kent receiving a hug from writer/filmmaker Jay Bulger

Tim Kent receiving a hug from writer/filmmaker Jay Bulger

TK: Jay is admirable because he is a guy who is not afraid to try anything. He started out as a boxer, then studied finance at Fordham, found himself at the Golden Gloves, and then became the model appearing as the face of Giorgio Armani! By the time I met him, he was in the process of becoming a writer. He had an idea in his mind about creating a documentary on the rock and roll drumming legend Ginger Baker (one time member of Cream and Blind Faith).  So Jay flew to Ginger Baker’s house in South Africa (without an appointment) but seamlessly rolled up to his door, interviewed him, and two years later the story was published in Rolling Stone. Meanwhile, he also obtained funding to turn the story into a documentary called Beware of Mr. Baker, which was released at the Film Forum here in New York and then nationwide earning the 2012 Grand Jury prize at South by Southwest…Some people are just lucky!

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