Every artist straddles the line between reality and abstraction. Merely by painting a three-dimensional image on a two-dimensional surface, a translation takes place, judgements are made, and the world is transformed by colored brush marks and the artist’s sensibility. Abstract concepts of composition, color, balance, line, and form all play their part. As a painter myself, I have always wondered how one moves from realism to abstraction. The opportunity to meet and speak with Glenn Tunstull gave me insight.
As I walked into his living room, the first thing to catch my eye was a striking painting over the fireplace. Three musicians, playing sax, trumpet, and bass, stood out from and simultaneously melted into a background of blue shapes rendered in Glenn’s sharply squared-off brushstrokes. He told me that painting, “Jazz Blue,” was his inspiration to shift his style to pure abstraction. Those background forms, amorphous swaths of color that merged into and away from one another, became the subject. I saw them as planets, moons, and suns. Glenn described them as vortexes. Sort of. He called them “internal landscapes, a pivot from looking outwardly to create a representational subject to becoming inspired by an inner source.” A series of paintings, the products of exploring that inner source, will be on exhibit at his solo show opening this Saturday, August 15, at Cousen Rose Gallery.
I had examined several of Glenn’s paintings prior to our interview. He has always used broken brushwork, either closely layered or sharply separate, in sort-of-extended pointillistic dabs, to paint landscapes and figures in oil and watercolor. The view outside his windows of the lagoon was subject enough for a lifetime of paintings. They were bright, almost Fauve-like colors, reminiscent of Derain and Matisse landscapes and harbor scenes painted around the late 1800s to early 1900s.
Glenn had laid out an array of canvases for me to see, numbered compositions in sequence of their conception. He described his process of drawing onto a burnt sienna–toned canvas to set the basic design, then working with complementary colors “to move the viewer’s eye around the painting.” They are mostly blues and purples set against warm orange, yellow, and peach. He chose “Composition 2 (Inner Landscape)” for the postcard announcing his upcoming show. It is a swirling mix of curved planes that intersect, bisect, move forward, and recede in a tense coexistence. Mysterious yellow and orange orbs glow in the distance? Or are they up close? They float in space, and yet absorb it at the same time.
“There are no rules to say what it should be, but rules of color, composition, and design still apply. I’m focusing on pure composition. When working representationally, you work on composition, too, but part of it is already there for you.” It sounded both more cerebral and more physical. He spoke of the arm and body movement laying in the composition in broad, circular motions, “one element flowing into another, breathing.”
Glenn had always wanted to do abstract work. Much of this transition sounded as though he had already already there. When he talked about looking at his landscapes as already abstract compositions, looking at a part of it separate from the rest, and expanding it to become the abstract image/nonimage, it made sense to me. Often, abstract artists describe their work in landscape terms, saying that their work comes from the natural world they observe. It’s an interesting concept.
“Composition 12 (Dark)” and “Composition 13 (Light)” are a striking pair of related paintings; as the titles indicate, they are almost a reverse of one another. They are formatted as long horizontals, 12 inches by 48 inches. Glenn explained his choice to use almost the same colors in each, playing with the colors against dark or light grounds, with curves of color and brushstrokes pulling the viewer into ever-deeper space.
One thing develops and grows from another, similar to how the artist’s work has evolved. Glenn began as a student at Parsons School of Design, and has gone on to teach color theory at Marist College and at Parsons. He had a successful career as a fashion illustrator, and his work has been seen on the pages of Vogue magazine, Harper’s Bazaar, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal, among others. I can picture figures in flowing dresses drawn with perhaps a more controlled hand, but with a sense of energy similar to his description of the beginning drawings that become the laid-in shapes for his current paintings.
Besides the abstract oil paintings, his show will also include a collection of watercolors featuring bathers and beachgoers in colored chairs under bright umbrellas. They are quite abstract, too. The same hand and the same mind, the same sensibility.
Glenn Tunstull’s “Inner Landscapes,” Cousen Rose Gallery, Oak Bluffs, this Saturday, August 15, 7 to 9 pm. Show runs through August 22.