An Interview With Brooklyn-Based Artist Johnny Thornton

Johnny Thornton, Person: Day # 8,997 (detail), Oil on Canvas Board | © Johnny Thornton
Johnny Thornton, Person: Day # 8,997 (detail), Oil on Canvas Board | © Johnny Thornton
Photo of Mike Johnson
28 December 2016

Johnny Thornton is an artist living and working in New York City. Born in Connecticut in 1979, Thornton grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa and Tucson, Arizona before moving to Brooklyn six years ago. His current work consists of vivid black and white portraiture that stylistically fluctuates between highly-detailed realism and expressionistic gestural representations. Thornton works out of his studio in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. We find out more.

Can you explain the title of your series, Self Portraits of Other People? What is its conceptual significance?

Self Portraits of Other People is about finding a connection to others by focusing on the commonality of the bodily experience. The body is often seen as a vessel or a conduit for a consciousness, soul or spirit that transcends materiality. I think people often self-construct an identity that exists outside of the framework of their own bodies — in other words, the belief that the ‘self’ is greater than the sum of its parts. In my opinion, this kind of thinking tends to be somewhat misleading and fosters the idea that we are completely unique and separate from each other. Working on this series allows me to construct a different understanding based on seeing the body as a small part of a larger system, and in doing so, achieve a deeper understanding of myself.

Johnny Thornton, Self Portraits of Other People: Day # 8,997, Oil on Canvas | © Johnny Thornton

The titles of your pieces are based on the chronological day of the person’s life, and they give no information about the subject themselves. Who are these people, and what is your process of painting them?

Conceptually speaking, their identities are irrelevant. I give the viewer one piece of information: the number of days the subject has been alive, which illustrates how the body grows, changes, and deteriorates over time. I get the subjects anywhere I can. Some I know, some fall in my lap, and some I find online. My main interest in choosing subjects is finding a diverse sampling of people. All of my paintings are done from photographs I take of the subject in a 20-minute photo shoot — I try to not direct them too much and try to get them talking a lot so I can capture them in an aloof or comfortable moment. After I take the photograph, I draw the image on canvas and start painting.

Johnny Thornton, Self Portraits of Other People: Day # 25,627, Oil on Canvas | © Johnny Thornton

Can you expand on why this series focuses exclusively on the body?

I try to remove the subject from everything external in order to take away as much context as I can: no clothes, no environment, no jewelry, no make-up, and no tattoos, just the subject. I do this as a way to explore identity through the singular lens of the human body. Aside from the viewer’s own subjectivity about things like hairstyle, race, gender, age, etc., there is to nothing to allude to any narratives of socio-economic circumstances, ideological stances, sexual orientation, gender identity, or anything else we use to categorize others or ourselves. The focus of my work has never been about all of the social constructs used to reinforce or define identity. There are a million artists, theorists, and academics that slog through those murky waters every day. My interests lie elsewhere. That’s not to say that stuff doesn’t factor into my work — I am human, after all.

Johnny Thornton, Self Portraits of Other People: Day # 8,997, Oil on Canvas | © Johnny Thornton

Your other current series, Person, is very similar conceptually and aesthetically in many ways, but also incorporates a line drawing that covers and distorts the image below it. Can you tell us about this series?

This series started as an experiment and stems directly from Self Portraits of Other People; I used the same models and same overall concept with the addition of blind contour lines as a way to represent the body in a different way and insert emotionality. The two ways of representation – painting realistically and using abstract contour lines – are very different ways of working: one is time consuming, controlled, and meditative, and one is fast, uncontrolled, and cathartic. I really enjoy the interplay between these styles on the surface – contrasts fighting for attention while working with each other.

Johnny Thornton, Person: Day # 8,997, Oil on Canvas Board | © Johnny Thornton

You paint the realistic portrait before drawing on it with oil stick with your eyes closed. Is it difficult to work this way – to retain so much control while creating the realistic portrait, and then relinquish that control when you’re doing the blind contour drawing over it?

Each way of working requires a completely different temperament. Sometimes it is a bit scary to permanently mark all over a painting with my eyes closed after I’ve spent a good amount of time on it, but it gets easier every time. So far I’ve been happy with the results. It’s really cathartic to give up control and just let what happens happen.

Johnny Thornton, Person: Day # 25,627, Oil on Canvas Board | © Johnny Thornton

You have a history of making large-scale colorful abstracts, and yet all of your newer work is black and white. What was your thought process in deciding to leave color out of your newer work?

I’m an extremist in that way; I’ll go through long phases where I’ll paint large colorful abstracts and get it out of my system. I think I love color too much — when I work with it, I tend to want to push it to the extreme in a way that doesn’t bode well for representational work. I’m also really drawn to the black and white aesthetic. I think its lack of life-like colors emphasizes that there is a subjective third party.

Johnny Thornton, Person: Day # 7,941, Oil on Canvas Board | © Johnny Thornton

Your work is very well rendered and occasionally teeters on photorealism while still maintaining a painterly quality. How do you strike this balance?

Craft and technique are important to me, but still somewhat secondary to the content. I paint the way I want it to look; I don’t feel any obligation to stay true to the photo reference. The fun part for me is when I decide to ‘go off script’ and make subtle changes or add information the image didn’t pick up. That’s where it really gets interesting.

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