Tom Sanford is an extremely talented painter that lives and works in NYC. His work has been exhibited internationally for more than a decade. The richly colored surfaces in his paintings recall the classic composition and scale of an earlier time. This blend of past and present results in powerful artifacts that expose the absurdity that drives our hyper media culture.
Tom was nice enough to show us around his studio and field a few questions.
Your studio is located in Tribeca, anything significant happening there that might interest my readers?
Tribeca is a pretty great place to have one’s studio for several reasons. There are multiple art supply stores within walking distance (Pearl Paint, Soho Art Supply, and Dick Blick). Another plus is there are a few really great galleries that are only a short walk away, such as Dietsch Projects, Team, Spencer Brownstown, Jack Hanley, Renwick, and Canada. I am also a 10-minute subway ride from Chelsea, so it is pretty easy to see art when I need a break. After working in the studio, I have the Nancy Whiskey pub just down the street where I can grab a beer and a burger while I watch a ballgame. But the best thing about my location is that I am centrally located so it is pretty easy for most people to come by and visit me, no matter where they are in the city.
Tom Sanford, Three Graces, oil, acrylic and gold leaf on paper, 2008.
What combination of forces led you to becoming an artist?
I guess initially it was a series of bad decisions and failures that made becoming a professional artist my only real option. When I was an undergrad at Columbia, I was an economics major, however I had little facility for it and after I was awarded the staggeringly low grade of a C- in econometrics (almost unheard of due to grade inflation), it was clear to me that my future was not an analyst for a hedge fund. At the time I was minoring in art, and perhaps it was the 60 or so hours a week I would spend on my one art class per semester that lead to poor results in my economics classes. The only sensible thing to do seemed to be to change my major and graduate with a BA in Visual Art. After college, I realized that with an art degree I was all but unemployable in a mainstream sense. I really had no other choice than to start working for various artists (mainly Alexis Rockman, Deborah Kass & Gregory Amenoff) as well as various other extremely odd jobs. As it turns out, working for actual artists is really the only way to learn how to be an artist. I’m not saying you can’t learn how to make art in other places, but if you hope to go pro, this is the way to learn the business and what it means to be an artist. So, for a few years I lived on as little money as possible so that I could devote as much time to painting and living the fast life of a young New York artist. Soon enough I was showing my art pretty regularly and after a while I was selling enough to quit my other jobs. I guess it was at that point that I became a full-on artist and have been so for the past six years. At this point, having been out of college for about a decade without any experience that one could put on a resume, I am pretty much resigned to a life of art.
Tom Sanford, Self Portrait (My Credit Card), oil and acrylic on paper, 2008.
Your Tompac experiment (linked here) garnished a lot of attention, good and bad. How was that experience?
At the risk of revealing my intellectual laziness, I am going to go ahead and lift my answer directly from an interview Qi Peng did with me a few months ago:
….I certainly do hope to grow up “young black and famous / money hanging out the anus” (Sean Combs), but my TomPAC project, and for that matter, my series of paintings of gangsta rappers, were not primarily about Hip Hop. I have always been extremely interested not only in the music and aesthetics of Hip Hop culture, but also in Hip Hop as a truly postmodern form. As an art form, it has gone beyond outdated ideas of authorship and originality. This being said, my art projects that you asked about (the paintings and TomPAC) are about the notion that it is a transgressive action for, in the case of the paintings, a white male artist to depict black men, and later in the case of the TomPAC project, I upped the ante by claiming to be a black man. The idea was initially inspired by Jack Early & Rob Pruitt’s controversial 1992 exhibition at Leo Castelli Gallery called “Red, Black, Green, Red, White and Blue” which dealt with black male identity and stereo-types. The reaction to the show was so extremely negative that the two artists were essentially kicked out of the art world for about a decade. I started painting black rappers in 2000 in large part to test this taboo. I soon decided that mere paintings in this case represented too little risk on my part, so in 2003 I transformed myself into TomPAC, a white version of the dead rapper Tupac Shakur. This project attracted a lot of media attention from places like NPR, MTV and the LA Times. While people were interested in the tattooing, piercing, head shaving, pot smoking etc., I regarded these aspects of the project merely performative flourishes. The real issue was whether it was ok for a white man to pretend to be a dead black man, and what does it mean that he does this? The public reaction to this project was pretty overwhelming, and in large part negative, but that was precisely the point of the project. Interestingly enough, white liberals/intellectuals and neo-nazis seemed equally uncomfortable with my claim on Tupac. Certainly some people of color were uneasy with it, but not all were, and once i explained the agenda of the project for the most part people where interested and less offended by it. I really don’t have much desire to do another racially provocative project. I learned a lot from that work and it is among the art of which I am most proud; however I have said what I needed to say on the subject. As to the article in XXL, that was not a review, but it is probably the coolest piece of press i have ever received. Back in 2006 XXL did a special issue to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Tupac’s death, and they included my project on their timeline of important Tupac related events – I guess I am a footnote in the official history of Tupac Shakur and I’ll drink to that!”
After reading this answer in the previous interview, my friend and colleague, Justin Leiberman provided an insightful critique of my answer:
“Why do you say that post-modernism does away with authorship and originality? To me, it is only the neo-conservative version of post-modernism that does this. And I think you have offered a clue to this very thing when you point out that white liberals and neo-nazis were offended. I mean really, what does this say? It would be reductive to say that these two groups are the same because they are both offended by the painting. In the case of the neo-nazis, perhaps they were offended because you pulled the “other” too close, creating a situation in which there was no difference. It is easy to piss off neo-nazis, I’m sure that they find “Will and Grace” equally offensive. To them different equals primitive and base. The whole program of the nazis was based on an aestheticisation of the political. They see difference as degraded, low, against civilization. And so they try to get rid of it. White liberals are a different story. They PRETEND that there is no difference, that black and white can be united in harmony and so they ignore (or in Obama’s words “press the reset button”) the violence of colonialism. They pretend it doesn’t exist and do not speak of it and so they leave it hanging in the air because they are incapable of ACCEPTING difference. But your images seem to show the disjunction that occurs when you do the exact opposite of the neo-nazis, that is, pull the other in as close as possible. But in doing this aren’t you insisting on the neo-nazi’s conception of this difference, and just showing the reverse side of it? The white liberals pretend it isn’t there, The neo-nazis push it as far away as possible, and the surrealists pull it in as closely as possible. The whole idea rests on the idea that “further away equals more primitive”. A conflation of subconscious drives with geographical distance.”
I wholeheartedly agree with Justin’s criticism as well as his very astute point about the issue at the core of my project. I was a bit lazy and narrow with my usage of postmodernism and again due to this intellectual lethargy, I will leave it at that.
Can we expect any more experimental/performance work from you down the line?
I wouldn’t rule it out, but I would probably only go down that path if it addressed a problem I was running into in my painting, and I am very unlikely to do another extreme makeover type project – that sort of thing is so 2003. I am currently working on a few quasi-conceptual projects, but they are a little more long term. For instance, I have been contacting and trying to meet other people named Tom Sanford, then painting them. This project goes in fits in starts, as in order to travel to meet another Tom Sanford I need to have both extra time and money. I have met four other Tom Sanfords thus far. Recently I’ve come across another Tom Sanford, who is a police chief in Dalhart Texas, and he has been in the news with regard to a homicide case. I have spent almost no time in Texas and this might be a good excuse to visit.
Tom Sanford, Black Friday, diptych, oil and acrylic on paper, 2009.
Many of your recent paintings are based on current events. Do you anticipate becoming bored with the world or can you imagine a lifetime of work reflecting your personal external highlights?
Hmmm…”personal external highlights”? That isn’t how I would put it. Most of the current events that I choose to paint are anything but highlights. In fact I would say the “history painting” genre of my work focuses exclusively on the low points, the most horrific and bizarre moments in recent history. Of course, crazy and awful things seem to be happening all the time, but my paintings take me quite some time, so I have to be selective and I tend to gravitate towards events that seem particularly culturally poignant to me at the time. It is hard to say how long this avenue of investigation will interest me, but as long as people are doing things like balloon boy hoaxes to get on reality TV (just the latest nonsense as I type) there is no end of material in sight.
Tom Sanford, The Somali Pirates vs. The USS Bainbridge, oil and acrylic on canvas, 2009.
Could you take us on a tour of “The Somali Pirates vs. The USS Bainbridge” painting?
This painting is one of my history paintings. The scale is quite grand, about 7 feet tall and 9 feet wide, so it is on the level of the sorts of big battle paintings that you might find at Versailles or the Louvre, however in this case I did not have a particular painting in mind.
I picked this event, first because of timing, as the event took place just as I was finishing up a large painting of the Black Friday WalMART stampede of 2008, and I was looking for a new subject. I also picked it because this event so beautifully illustrates global economics and the power dynamics of a pluralistic world. And besides, I love the idea of living in a world where pirates roam the Indian Ocean.
In all seriousness, while this particular transaction between the pirates and Maersk went tragically wrong (at least from the pirates point of view) – it was fascinating to learn about this little industry of hijacking and cargo insurance that seems to be benefiting all parties involved (except I guess the crews of the hijacked boats that often spend months in limbo while the terms of ransom are negotiated like any other run of the mill international business deal). In the case of the Maersk Alabama, it is clear that the pirates misjudged the reaction of the US government, or more likely didn’t realize that the Alabama was an American vessel. And of course the stand-off was a beautiful case of asymmetrical warfare when it doesn’t work out for the little guy.
Tom Sanford, The Somali Pirates vs. The USS Bainbridge (detail).
In my painting I took some liberties when depicting the scene in the life raft where captain Richard Phillips was held by the three ill-fated pirates. First of all, the actual raft itself had a covered top, which I changed for sake of the image. I also altered Captain Phillips to look quite a bit like the Bill Murray character (Steve Zissou) from Wes Anderson’s movie The Life Aquatic. And for that matter, I also referred to the pirates from The Life Aquatic when designing the look of the Somali pirates in my painting. I also chose to give my pirates some of the classic accoutrements of their profession, such as a peg leg, a hook for a hand, and a skull & cross bones flag, for comic effect and to heighten the lopsided nature of this standoff. I made sure to have three African vultures as a nod to the ultimate fate of the three pirates on the raft. I also enjoyed adding circling sharks and toxic waste, which I understand are accurate to the location and add some drama to the scene.
Tom Sanford, Octomom, oil, acrylic and fake silver on paper, 2009.
If you could have any celebrity alive or dead stop in at your studio, who would it be and why?
As much as my work might suggest otherwise, I am actually not generally interested in meeting celebrities. In fact, I fear that meeting the ones that I am interested in would likely humanize my perception of them, and render that celebrity useless to me as far as my work goes. I don’t have any interest in celebrities as people. I use celebrities in my work for what they represent in our culture – they are symbols, archetypes, allegories, or metaphors, but certainly not people. This is not to say that I am not interested in people – quite the contrary. I love people and I am pretty social. I would not want to be unfair to people, especially ones that I know and have empathy for, and that is why I am very careful about how I depict non-celebrities in my work. Actually meeting a celebrity would ruin our relationship, at least as far as I am concerned. I guess the larger point is that my work makes no effort to be fair to celebrities or to any event or issue that I tackle. I am not interested in being correct, I would go as far to say that any art that is correct, or fair, or defensible is almost certainly uninteresting, and in my mind, bad art. I think art does very well at expressing opinion and viewpoints, but it is an absolutely lousy vehicle if you want to express the truth. That said, I would like to have Cosimo de’ Medici to my studio, if he could be counted as a celebrity. I like to think that he might be sympathetic to my work.
It is clear that you enjoy painting. What else places demands on your time? Please describe your perfect “day off.”
I don’t really have any hobbies apart from my art. I try to take a day off each week and spend it with my wife. And any day with her is a perfect day (assuming it doesn’t involve too much shopping or other chores). When the weather is nice we tend to take walks around our neighborhood in Harlem, or go over to the Bronx for a Yankee game (we are only two subway stops from the stadium), or on special occasions we like to go to the horse track. When the weather is bad we watch a lot of television, cook, occasionally the shooting range, and sometimes we go to a museum – our favorite is the Frick Collection.
Tom Sanford, Lloyd Dobbler, oil and acrylic on paper, 2008.
I just read a new survey that claims 3.8 million aspiring artists are at work in the United States alone. Is there any advice that you would like to share with this creative minded public?
My best advice is to do something else – I don’t want any more competition for my job. However if you must be an artist I would think very specifically about what you mean by that. Being an artist can mean many different things and there are many ways to pursue this career. You have to know what it is you want to achieve, who you would like your audience to be, and what artists or other cultural makers you would like to be in dialogue with. Art is a means of communication, and if you want to do it seriously you have to be very clear about what you are saying and too whom. If you don’t know these things and you aren’t concerned with your audience, you are a hobbyist. Or, I guess if you happen to be institutionalized, maybe an outsider artist.
Anything coming up that we should know about?