Asking Questions at Van Vessem
In anticipation of an exhibition featuring the work of painter and mixed-media artist Tom Culora, I visited his studio in a wasabi-green cinderblock building that once housed a handkerchief mill in Warren, Rhode Island. Thirty-something years ago, Culora received a full scholarship at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, earning a BFA. Delving into the art history of the late 19th and early 20th century, he developed an unbridled appreciation for painters like Edward Hopper, Robert Henri and others who offered images of “everyday people.” At that time, he was too earnest for irony.
That has changed. Culora has worked much of his life in the military — he is an aircraft pilot and an authority on underwater warfare — and in international relations and security. Culora’s career path took an unusual twist, and yet that deviation from the standard painter’s trajectory (pursuit of the MFA, teaching art, etc.) certainly had to be one of the elements that led to the development of his keen sense of humor and a postmodernist irony borne of social observation and an understanding of the absurd.
Culling images from the Internet, Culora rejects celebrity and the cult of personality and instead celebrates the anonymity provided by the enhanced connection and the real disconnect of social networks. In his Mother Board series, created with oil paint and glazes on electronic computer panels, he captures stills from posted Internet chats and enlarges them to Chuck Close-scale portraits of unknown individuals. Some are women or teenaged girls, but there is also an androgynous young boy. This “sampling” or appropriation of images creates questions about observation, gender relations and the infamous male gaze. They are bold and demanding and surprisingly intimate.
Culora’s “Shock and Awe” is a striking work. It features 12 frames that mimic old school television cabinets. The frames are cast plaster in colors that would fit in to a late-1950s kitchenette — cotton candy pink, teal, lavender, salmon and sky blue. Within them are black-and-white film stills portraying six men and six women. The men appear — for the most part — to be unimpressed, bored, indifferent or merely tolerant. The young women cry, laugh and scream in near-ecstasy. Period hairstyles and clothing suggest the early Mad Men era. They could be reacting to a Beat reading in a coffee shop or to the news of the assassination of JFK. But it is neither. The men (shock) and the women (awe) are in the audience of the Ed Sullivan Show, watching the Beatles perform. Culora chooses to observe the audience, not the Fab Four.