S .F. painter’s ultra-vivid portraits convey character
Sometimes David Tomb is a little startled when he walks into his studio and encounters his life-size portraits of friends. â€śIt really feels like the person is there,â€ť says Tomb, a noted San Francisco painter whose boldly colored pictures draw on the long tradition of portraiture but have an edgy contemporary buzz of their own.
Tomb hopes that visitors walking into the Hackett- Freedman Gallery will experience that same â€śsplit second of suspended disbelief,â€ť when the people in the paintings appear alive and present. He likens the sensation to confronting a diorama in a natural history museum, when whatâ€™s real and whatâ€™s not momentarily blur. Thatâ€™s why Tomb calls this show â€śDiorama.â€ť It comprises just four big portraits, one of his wife and the others of close friends well known in Bay Area music and art circles: musician Cory McAbee of the Billy Naylor Show, artist Steven Briscoe and performance artist Steven Raspa. They go on display in the small back gallery at Hackett-Freedman tomorrow night, the first Thursday of the month, when downtown San Francisco galleries stay open late for show-hopping crowds.
These paintings, whose thickly impastoed faces and hands suggest the influence of Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon, are more formal and controlled than the wildly gestural figurative drawings and paintings for which Tomb is best known.
â€śI think these are a little more refined,â€ť says Tomb, 39, a Bay Area native who studied at Long Beach State and whose unorthodox portraits were the subject of an exhibition earlier this year at the Fresno Art Museum. The drawings â€śtended to be a lot more gestural and layered, and a little more improvised. There was a lot of exploration and invention, and I feel a lot of that is still happening in these, but itâ€™s a little more subtle.
â€śFor me itâ€™s important to have a balance of refinement and aspects of the picture that are little more rough and tumble or less developed. Over the last few years Iâ€™ve been more focused on color, using vibrant color, sometimes even aggressively, as a really strong component of the picture.â€ť
These pictures rock with blazing reds and greens, blue and yellows, befitting the flamboyance of some of these showbiz folk. Performance artist Raspa, known for his â€śBurning Manâ€ť installations, stands in a purple blazer and fire-red shirt and trousers. Thatâ€™s what he wore while posing for the picture during numerous sessions. But his eyes werenâ€™t closed, as they are in the painting, nor was there a peacock at his feet, or that great swath of blue behind him.
While Tomb depicts his subjects with a certain verisimilitude, he reworks the image for as long as two years until the portrait emerges. He places the figures in fictional settings whose contrasting forms, colors and textures create tension and say something about the subject. The painting is not just a portrait of the sitter or of himself, but â€śthat dynamic between us,â€ť Tomb says, â€śthe connection between the two, the friendship or the energy, for lack of a better term, or communion. I guess itâ€™s a document of what happens in between.â€ť
After the sitter leaves, Tomb starts to invent, adding and taking away elements that bring out the strong presence of character that â€śI like to think all my friends have,â€ť he says with a laugh. He finds their particular characters â€śelusive and mysterious. Itâ€™s something I want to share with other people.â€ť
He repainted Raspaâ€™s eyes shut because he wanted to portray his friendâ€™s dreamlike quality. The peacock just came to him and felt right. â€śSteven has a very intense and vibrant spirit. The peacock is a very exotic bird, and thereâ€™s also something slightly menacing about it. Itâ€™s beautiful and menacing. Steven is not really a menacing person, but there is a bit of an edge to his personality. There is something just slightly menacing about his face, but balanced with a kind of wonderment. Itâ€™s those tensions that to me are really interesting.â€ť
Tombâ€™s portrait of Briscoe, with his neon-green blazer and red electric guitar, is loosely based on Manetâ€™s â€śLuncheon in the Studio,â€ť except here the bountiful meal is replaced with a huge bottle of Bass ale.
Tomb portrayed his wife, Susan, sitting on a settee in a compressed living room space where objects have been tilted up to the picture plane in a way that makes it seem â€śvertiginous and flat at the same time,â€ť Tomb says. Holding an empty champagne glass, she has a melancholy expression that her husband attributes half-jokingly to â€śsitter fatigue.â€ť Tomb thinks the picture captures Susanâ€™s introspective nature. â€śMy wife is a lot more beautiful than how the picture turned out,â€ť says the artist. â€śBut thereâ€™s something about how it came out that is very much Susan.â€ť
Portrait painting is hardly hip in the contemporary art world. But Tomb, whose grandfather was the California Impressionist painter Sidney Lemos, likes being part of a tradition to which he feels heâ€™s adding something new and subtle of his own.
â€śSome people find it constricting and confining. But I happen to find it very rewarding. Most of the great artists Iâ€™ve been inspired by have done portraits — Picasso, Modigliani, Caravaggio, Velazquez, de Kooning. For me it seems like such a natural thing. Peopleâ€™s faces are very compelling and interesting.â€ť