In the Studio with Tommy Harrison

Words by

Maddalena Bonato

In the Studio with Tommy Harrison

Has art always played an important role within your life? Can you think about a particular episode that made you realise you wanted to become an artist?

An interest developed when I moved to Amsterdam in 2019. I spent most of my time exploring the city alone, eventually finding myself visiting the museums on a regular basis. This was my first exposure to exceptional art, and quickly it made me want to begin painting. I returned to England within a year to do so.

How do you approach a blank canvas? Do you usually have something already in mind or is painting more likely to become a building process that comes out naturally and might shift over the realisation?

Both. My process is entirely unfolding, beginning by drawing onto linen. However, what I draw is derived from a pre-conceived idea that exists only in the mind. In terms of organisation, the final painting is detached from this original idea, since the format you’re inserting the information into has its own demands, but the content remains the same.  

Tommy Harrison, 'White Night', 2023, oil on linen. Courtesy of the artist and GRIMM, Amsterdam | New York | London. Photography by Michael Pollard.

What does an ordinary day at your studio look like? What is your routine as an artist?

I arrive early and start right away, doing whatever needs to be done. I generally work on multiple paintings in the same day. I leave late in the evening also. From there I head home to read or go for a pint.

I can notice many focal points of influence from the past in your paintings. What is that brings your attention to these particular elements and why? Is this perhaps linked to your educational path or is it coming from an intentional and personal interest/research?

I currently study MFA Painting at Manchester School of Art. This course focuses entirely on painting, gifting time to delve deep into the past as well as discuss painting’s current condition. As a result, my influences span the whole of art history. My subjects and techniques are often very historically grounded, referencing as far back as the 1400’s. Whereas my focus on organisation, both on the surface and in depth, comes more heavily from modern painting. My knowledge of all periods has deeply influenced the way I look at contemporary Painting.

In your works there are some vivid religious references that you decontextualise and relocate in atypical settings. What do you want to communicate with this?

Nothing specific. My work drifts to exceptionally mundane subjects also. In both cases, the engagement is very similar, this being primarily with the making itself. Often my religious references are derived purely from a fascination with the formal qualities of the image used. I have painted from Robert Campin’s ‘Crucified Thief’ several times, purely because the body is such a fascinating shape. Originally part of a large altarpiece, the mirroring panel is now lost, this gives the remaining panel alone a very moving dissonance. For me it conveys something similar to an Ellsworth Kelley, ‘Broadway’ (1958) for example, a work I’ve seen often in Tate Liverpool.

It is interesting to notice your capability to give past influences a more contemporary light. What is your intention in bringing to light such vivid influences from the past within a contemporary context?

In relation to technique, this is simply due to a fascination with the old masters, any contemporary feel to my techniques is probably from the wide range of colours I have access to today. In relation to subject, I often paint things which have always been painted. They may seem like they were taken from way in the past, but often my subjects have also been painted in the 50’s, the 80’s and 2000’s. I like painting things which have always been painted, probably because I come across them a lot. There is no intention to it.

And how do you relate with the current contemporary art world?

It seems to me that being sincere in what you do is acceptable today, no matter how ridiculous the work may appear. I am very sincere in what I do and wish my paintings to be visually generous. I want the ‘good’ properties of my work to be in the face of the viewer. I don’t want them to have to think them up.

The atmosphere conveyed by your paintings has some sort of surreal/uncanny essence. It is very fascinating and allows the observer to enter another dimension. To you, is this exploration of unknown imaginary related to the intention for interior discovery?

No, I would say not. Discovery is made on the painted surface. I think the atmosphere in my works comes from how they’re organised as well as the colour pallet. I paint very common spaces: Lounges, gardens, bus stops etc, however the extent to which they are organised is the opposite of how reality functions. Also, the shape and size of the components required is so specific, I often need to invent what I paint without source imagery. This makes them appear stranger still.

Another interesting point is the juxtaposition you make of subjects and the surrounding environment. What’s your point of view on the relationship between environment and human figure?

I’m interested in the traditional figure/ground relationship and the way it has been dealt with over centuries. My use of the human figure within environments is an exploration of this. In my work specifically, this can result in figures floating in darkness - like in the baroque - or both figure and ground existing exceptionally shallowly, almost to the point of minimal abstraction. In this case, the figure is often replaced by another object acting as figure.

Tommy Harrison, 'Prowler', 2023, oil on linen. Courtesy of the artist and GRIMM Amsterdam | New York | London. Photography by Michael Pollard.

There is a sort of dualism often coming out in your works in different ways. One of those is the deep contrast between lights and shadows. Such as if in your paintings the play of light and shadow is what shapes the work, giving tree dimensionality and driving the eye.  

When looking at painting, I find both tension and pressure in contrasts. Lights and shadows are key, but so are surface variations, colours, masses and spaces. I look to push these and experiment with them as far as I can. Some are slapped across your face whilst others are very subtle, almost to the point of an esoteric joke. In the case of light and shadow however, resolving these is a good way for me to know a painting is finished.

The attention to detail, which is what you strongly convey throughout your website and social media, is key in your work. What do you want to transmit across details? What do you purpose to catch in the eyes of the observer?

The more I make paintings, the more I find the meaning to be inseparable from the making itself. This relates strongly to the details, particularly paint handling. I apply paint in a huge range of ways, always aiming to convey freshness. I find this is naturally heightened by the presence of some nastier, pastier qualities. The effect of one upon the other makes the presence of both important in my work and in painting generally. I’m often disappointed when looking at something which is painted with one technique or temperament.

Tommy Harrison, detail from 'Prowler', 2023, oil on linen. Courtesy of the artist and GRIMM Amsterdam | New York | London. Photography by Adela Campbell.

Being an artist, what do you feel inside yourself? What motivates you to create and make art?

I find the making itself very exciting, even down to building the stretcher. However, this excitement is only possible through information gained via observing. For me, observing exists symbiotically with making, each enhancing the other.

After your solo show at Pipeline, what do you expect? What are your next steps/ideas coming up?

I am currently working on a Solo show with Grimm Gallery in May. I’m also focusing on finishing my degree in September. From there I’m excited to continue living and working in Manchester.  

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Photography by Adela Campbell, Courtesy of the Artist and GRIMM, Amsterdam | New York | London.