2021, oil on canvas, 58" x 60"
Tom Bunnell’s work hints at both the strength and fragility of systems and organization in a series of paintings that often put the merciless evolution of their development on full display. Nothing is sacred or safe from a temperament that relishes destruction as much as creation. What is destroyed, however, is often done so in a way that softens the blow through ethereal, thin layers of paint or the gestural wipe of a studio rag. The brush in Bunnell’s hand is at times a skilled creator of soft mists and staccato marks that suggestively blot out portions of meticulously arranged patterns and designs. At other times it is a wrecking ball that- instead of making his paintings uninhabitable- cracks open a portal to a universe where the structure of repetition and its chaotic opposite can coexist in a mature, understanding relationship. These opposing forces are like a couple that has stumbled upon the revelation that true love is about embracing and celebrating differences, not just accepting or tolerating them. The contrasting forms and styles amplify one another rather than cancel each other out; a sort of alchemical transformation takes place and the resulting whole is so much more than the individual parts ever dreamed they could be.
I'm so pleased to be able to share my interview with Washington, D.C. based artist Tom Bunnell. In it he talks about his early days as an artist, his current process, and his ongoing interest in pattern and design.
- David Schell
Tom Bunnell in his Washington, D.C. studio with
2023, oil on panel, 16”x20”
The Semi-Finalist: Tom Bunnell, thank you for doing this interview with me. I’m such a fan and it’s been a joy to spend time with you and your work. This is a bit out of character, but I’d like to jump in and start with a couple of questions that came up as we were talking in your Washington, DC studio a few months ago: what does a painting do? What is its function in contemporary culture?
Tom Bunnell: What does a painting do? What is its function? Well, I guess they just kinda sit there, don’t they?! Sit there and make us crazy. No, I’m kidding. Sort of. Maybe the function of a painting is to be that mute thing that holds light and pigment in its skin and holds us captive. We make paintings- human beings make them. I’m always fascinated at the beginning of the painting process and how much is happening inside my head (when really nothing is happening in the big scheme of things). It’s like a secret little melodrama kicking off. I think the “function” is up for grabs. I think paintings have their own lives that we coax out of them through time. I don’t think the images or what you end up painting is as important as how it’s painted.
We live in such a visually over stimulated world. Look at us crossing busy streets while staring into the chasm of our cell phones! We so want to be in there. Not here. I think paintings are the opposite of the cell phone screen. The surface is made up of pigment and cotton, wood, or linen (if your fancy), and though we want it to be a fixed thing, it’s constantly changing. Reacting to whatever light it’s in or if it’s cold or warm- it’s reacting.
2018, oil on canvas, 58" x 60"
S-F: Now we can backtrack a bit. Talk about how you got started as a painter. What did the formative years look like for you?
TB: I was really fortunate to have gone to the University of Oregon for my undergraduate degree. I actually got my BA in art history. It was required to take some studio classes and that’s where I really fell in love with painting. But I was awful! I hadn’t really painted before. So it was a super steep learning curve. But working with professors like Ron Graff and Frank Okada was totally key. They were tough, but they both brought this level of seriousness and excitement about painting that I really reacted to. And the other students in the classes were so vital. Many of whom became my friends. Man! I learned so much just from watching them paint. They seemed so chill and fluid with the whole process. But also very serious about their craft. It was a very formal and inspiring environment. But we had lots of fun. I went to the Chautauqua Institution right after getting my BFA. That was a critical summer. It was a great environment with loads of super talented young artists from all over the world. I got my butt handed to me from the various visiting artists coming through…it was tough. Again, I had a lot to learn. In desperation, I ended up making a large scale painting of a small, scrubby tree outside of my studio. The tree was like 4 feet so made a painting roughly the same size. So literal!! Hilarious. Anyway, It felt like I was making a painting that was truly mine. From there I went to American University for my MFA. I had the honor of working with people like Deborah Kahn, Stanley Lewis, Don Kimes, and Luis Silva. It was a very painterly grad program at the time, which I loved. Wonderful visiting artists like Bill Jensen and Ron Gorchov came through.
2021, oil on canvas, 58" x 60"
S-F: You engage with pattern, repetition and seductive color palettes in many - if not most- of your paintings. Can you tell me about your relationship with decoration, beauty and the joy of looking?
TB: The idea of a painting being decorative is a big no-no, isn’t it? Or it was! Not anymore, thank god. What a silly rule to have in the back of one’s head. I guess I started using a kind of grid in my drawings and paintings as a way just to think about holding the picture plane together. I’m so good at making bad first choices in my work. So I felt like the patterns and grids would allow for some logic or rationale at the outset. I don’t necessarily stay true to the first sort of grid I lay down. I find a way to undermine it during the painting process. I do actually look at a lot of decorative patterns in textiles, medieval decorative designs, and of course nature. Everything from Marimekko dresses to honeycomb patterns are up for grabs, I suppose. I’m trying to let more things in lately. There are so many ways of looking. Of seeing. I think if you’re being honest, it takes a lifetime to really learn how to see and know at the same time. Or see and feel, rather.
2022, oil on canvas, 58" x 60"
S-F: Tom, when I visited your studio you talked about a sense of inevitability in your process, about things feeling right (or wrong) as you work. Talk about that.
TB: You know, when I start a painting, I do try to have some underlying grid or pattern that creates structure. But almost always, when I come back to the painting, I’ll have second thoughts, third thoughts, 15th thoughts!! And then I begin to undermine my original idea. Like wiping it all down or inverting some pattern or color. It’s not like I want to do it. It’s more like it’s a call and response with the painting. I guess I’m really not conceptual at all with my work. It’s always a scruffy search. If something is found in a painting, I seem to have a moment of doubt. And this is the cycle I find myself in. The idea of something being inevitable in my work is that the paintings kind of “arrive” at a place that seems genuine and their own. It’s the result of a lot of chasing one idea down only to see it disappear over the horizon! It sounds angsty - and it is at times - but it’s really joyful, too.
Above: the studio wall with paintings in various states of completion.
Below: where the scruffy search happens.
S-F: Your work often has a cartoonish edge to it that I really respond to. There’s a bounciness and comical energy mixed in with the creation and destruction that are a part of your process. Where does that come from?
TB: I have a painting in my studio that I did in graduate school. It is a very dark, scraped up, and humorless peice. It was the kind of painting one does in graduate school when there’s just too much going on mentally and you feel like everyone’s up in your business. I keep it around to remind me of how low we can feel with our work. About ten years ago, I really started to make an effort to let more into my work- more goofy marks or shapes, colors that would be better in a cartoon. I had to be honest about my love of things like 60’s psychedelic art and all that. But also taking comedy seriously. Like with Shakespeare. His comedies are so wonderfully constructed but they also always have a moment when they could turn tragic! I love that fine line. There are very few paintings that are just funny. Like anger, it’s probably hard to sustain that the whole time you’re working on a painting.
"About ten years ago, I really started to make an effort to let more into my work- more goofy marks or shapes, colors that would be better in a cartoon. I had to be honest about my love of things like 60’s psychedelic art and all that."
Above: Red Line, 2019, oil on canvas, 60" x 64"
Below: Green Diamond with Pink, 2023, oil on panel, 8" x 10"
S-F: Who are you currently looking at (alive or dead)?
TB: Well, you’re always looking at someone or something, aren’t you? Artists don’t and can’t exist in a void for long. You gotta go have a look. But galleries and museums aren’t the only places we should be looking. Or on our Instagram feed, for that matter!
Like everyone else, I was super excited to see the Hilma af Klint paintings. I knew of her drawings, but not those big paintings! Whoa! I’ve sort of cooled out on looking at Cezanne and those guys for a while. I feel like the concerns in a post-impressionist painting aren’t mine at the moment. There’s just other stuff that’s more exciting. Like Japanese Sashiko Stitching! Annie(my wife) got me to look at that work. So amazing. Light years beyond me aesthetically but it’s great to study it. About 5 years ago we were in Santa Fe visiting friends and family and we went to the New Mexico Museum of Art. They happened to be having a show of Agnes Lawrence Pelton’s work. I was completely blown away! I had never heard of her and the paintings just really moved me. They’re so personal and transcendental. And so much a meditation on her spiritual experience in the west! I love her. And the fact that her work was rediscovered by a person who bought one of her pieces in a garage sale in California!?! Now I know the art market loves a good “rediscovery” story to help line its pockets, but with Agnes Pelton’s work and Hilma Af Klint you just get this sensation that their paintings were just sitting patiently. Waiting for us all. Quietly humming in this great vastness.
Tom Bunnell in his studio.
You can see more of Tom Bunnell's work:
- on his instagram: @electriczither
- in a Studio Visit interview
- in Holy Inventions at DC Addison Ripley Fine Art (curated by Isabel Manalo)
- on Artsy
left- The Curtain, the Sky, and it’s Ghost (I), 2022, oil on canvas, 30”x36”
right- The Curtain, the Sky, and it’s Ghost (II), 2022, oil on canvas 30”x36”
Funny field (black and white), 2022, 16”x 20”, Oil on Panel
Candy-O, 2022, 16”x 20”Oil on panel
On table: 3am Drawings, colored pencil, graphite on black Rives BFK
Tom holding Mirage, 2022, oil on panel, 8”x 10”