Friday, July 18, 2008

Interview: Ted Tucker on his NC-17 painting practice


You know when you see something that is ugly and crass in a lot of ways, but you feel inextricably drawn to it? My current handbag meets this description, as does, to a certain extent, the paintings of Toronto artist Ted Tucker. Tucker works in the A/V department at the Ontario College of Art and Design by day, parties heartily by night and paints it all... well I don't know when he finds time to paint it all, but when he does the results are a cross between Ridgemont High and Rossetti.

It's macho, adolescent, Porky's style frat fantasy—and for some reason I really, really like it. Partly it's the cheese factor—his graphic style speaks, as so few painters do, to a generation raised on crappy movies and crappier movie posters. Partly it's the technical skill—Tucker's a dab hand with the brush, to be sure. And partly it's just downright funny, which always gets me in art admiration.

So I was glad to talk with Tucker more about his practice this week; the condensed version of our chat is published in today's National Post. Click here to read the Post, or continue on after the jump to read a slightly expanded version with more of Tucker's images.

The following is an edited version of an interview that took place over the phone July 14, 2008 between artist Ted Tucker and critic Leah Sandals. The interview was held on the occasion of a show of Tucker's work at Christopher Cutts Gallery, Toronto.

Q Why is your show called NC-17?

A I'm into exploring this film genre I wasn't allowed to watch as a child: incredibly taboo movies rated NC-17. But during adolescence you start living the NC-17 lifestyle. So as a way to tell a story about that period of my life, I adopted themes or aesthetics from movies in that genre. Artist Rory Dean, who's also showing work in the gallery, deals with related ideas.

Q Could you name some of these films?

A Even though I couldn't watch them at home, every sleepover would have crass teen comedies and slasher movies like Child's Play, Porky's, Animal House, Friday the 13th. Admittedly not all fell under the NC-17 rating. But they were all still taboo to me.

Q The content is Ridgemont High, then, but the style is Rosetti. Why use such a classical realist form?

A When I was a kid I loved the covers of Hardy Boys books. I didn't want to read them, I just loved the way they were painted. Older, pre-digital movie posters, too. At six or seven I wasn't in an atelier but I was into the Goonies poster, you know? I also paint because I'm a big fan of classical painting. And if I paint well, these might get a bit more legitimacy.

Q These are also part of a bigger series called Hippocampus after a brain part that organizes memory. How did that series develop?

A For years I was just painting things, like, "Oh what's in the media, I' ll paint about war or beauty pageants or whatever's in the news." Then I wanted to illustrate more personal stories, but they just looked like boring snapshots. So I looked back to the days when a walnut on a table could be a symbol of a crucifix, where you had to solve symbols to get to a bigger thing. I started laying out all these memories that were really selective. No one remembers exactly what happened at summer camp, but you've got a story you've been telling your friends for years, that kind of thing. And I just started putting it together. I thought of the Hippocampus as a university campus and I put all my teenage memories there. The symbols are everything from beer kegs to chalices.

Q You went to art school and you work in an art college A/V department, yet your mythical life takes place in a populist setting of jocks and frats. How much of this is about fantasy fulfilment?

A I grew up in Ottawa across the street fromHillcrest High School, and I went to a performing arts school around the corner called Canterbury. I played sports with all the athletes in the neighbourhood, and I went to school with artists. I walked through it all. And honestly, my friends are burly jock painters. In art history there is this crazy machismo, like Ab Ex painters getting hammered all the time. So we're hard-partying goodtime guys, but we're also all into this Pre-Raphaelite genre. You're right though, if you brought us to a football game we'd probably get beaten up.

Q So what's the story behind, say, Hillcrest III? If it was a real movie, who would direct it?

A In the real story, Hillcrest High School left the door of the tech shop open all summer and my friend stole its motorbike, and we rode it around … until the paperboy took it. As for directing, I would hope for John Landis.

Q What's next for you?

A Well, it's all turning into a kind of illuminated manuscript. I'm trying to find a way to articulate this story digitally, too. With painting, I don't get my point across fast enough. It's like, I've got a great idea, come talk to me in three months. One of these paintings took me 500 hours tomake. By the end I hope I will be making big, incredible images that are comparable to someone making a movie. I hope to make one second of Lord of the Rings; that would be as exciting as making a Rubens.

Q One last question: what have your parents had to say, considering that their childhood restrictions partly shaped the work?

A My mother looked at that painting Road Rockets and said, " I don’t know how you managed to created your best friends’ house from childhood." She said, "You really are painting your nieghbourhood and your summer camp."

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