Never one to hop aboard crowded bandwagons or morph into some trendy chameleon slavishly mirroring the latest art world fad, David Tomb doggedly follows his own path. As legions of lesser artists scurry to chart brave new worlds in cyberspace, the digital world, and other high-tech media at the outset of the new millennium, the San Francisco artist quietly forges ahead within that traditional yet nowadays passe genre — portraiture. Tombâs aesthetic universe has revolved around the solitary human figure for the better part of two decades now. These days, the 40 year-old is quite possibly the finest practitioner of what might be termed âfigurative expressionismâ in the greater San Francisco Bay Area.
Although better known as a painter, the dozen or so drawings that comprise âTwitchâ reveal his considerable gifts as a draftsman. Whereas a colorful canvas might obscure a paintingâs linear and structural underpinnings, the whiplash charcoal gestures that simultaneously define a body/object while existing independently as abstract marks come to the forefront in these barer-boned drawings. Like all great artists, Tomb has mined art historyâs rich past and assimilated a personal pantheon of favored masters: Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud, Alice Neel, and Willem de Kooning (as well as Pablo Picasso, Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres, Edouard Manet et al.). Yet even as he lays bare and infuses these disparate influences into his work, Tomb manages to meld this ecumenical potpourri into something distinctly his own.
But Tomb parts company from many of his predecessors in that he rarely accepts commissions, instead preferring to paint or sketch people with whom he has a personal relationship. Such Intimacy, Tomb feels, helps spark a more dynamic collaborative interchange between artist and model. In their taut balance of line and color, these fluid, large-scale (44âx30â) works on paper — charcoal and gouache, ink, watercolor…) can also be thought of as âpainted drawingsâ that hover– or twitch– half-way between painting and drawing, representation and abstraction. Moreover, his modus operandi is to continue working and subject a piece to subtle or radical metamorphoses long after the sitter has gone. It seems drawings and models alike are works-in-progress.
The Neel-esque Buzz (2001) conveys a compelling blend of angst and ennui through body language that at once conceals and reveals the sitterâs state of mind. With tightly-pursed lips, crossed legs, and hands clasped over knees, twenty-something Amy sits perched demurely on the edge of her seat in a manner that simultaneously anchors and de-stabilizes the composition. If one might never guess this seemingly introverted figure is the girlfriend of a flamboyant musician-performance artist, successful portraits function as personal anxiety meters or Richter scales. Our placid modelâs protective âclosedâ posture stands in marked contrast to, say, Picassoâs triumphant splayed acrobats of the Rose Period. Her sweater ripples with thin herring-bone rivulets of emotional energy that echo the flat sky-blue wall behind her and belie the feigned calm frozen upon her mask-like face. The Sphinxian remoteness of Amyâs three-quarter profile cum non-confrontational gaze is partially counterbalanced by a large Egyptian frontal eye bequeathed from Picassoâs âdemoisellesâ and the way Tomb has her practically tumbling into our laps via a vertically upended brown, diamond-patterned floor plane.
Here and elsewhere, Tomb shows himself to be a master of playing off oppositions that set in motion a lively formal-psychological back-and-forth, push-and-pull, give-and-take (e.g. Amyâs face brings to mind an Iberian stone sculpture whose features possess a Bacon-like Silly Putty plasticity). Allowing the sheet of paperâs white void to bleed through and become incorporated around and even within a lone figure not only suggests that old time existentialism, it also generates a dynamic tension between the flat picture plane and three-dimensional figure. In Suspended Disbelief (2001), Tomb tweaks Freudâs unflinching realism even as it harks back to Ingresâ famous portrait of Louis-Francois Bertin (1832). Here, we encounter longtime friend and frequent model Richard, a veritable man-mountain or not-so-jolly Santa Claus whose âflatâ jelly-belly is defined largely through negative space. Whereas Ingresâ irascible âBuddha of the bourgeoisieâ appeared almost clamped within his wooden chair, Tombâs rotund blue-eyed Buddha is imprisoned inside his own body, his tight-belt a restrictive truss. The ash gray features, dark cloud literally hovering over head, and patches of blue dispersed over his body subliminally coalesce to suggest a saturnine temperament.
As the abstract skeletons of line and color takes on lives of their own, Tombâs colorful models spark our imaginations while the drawings themselves hold clues to their real stories. Tomb is that rare artistâ artist capable of connecting with a wider audience than is often the case with more hermetic contemporary art. Assuming that painting and portraiture continue to roll with the punches and survive the fickleness of fashion, one day Tombâs engaging portrait gallery might just be a familiar presence in museums across the land.
* This essay was originally published in 2001 as a brochure for a David Tomb solo drawing exhibition on the East Coast.
Harry Roche is a contributing editor to Artweek, associate editor of Tea Party Magazine, and has written for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, SF Weekly, East Bay Express, and Sculpture Magazine among other publications.