There is something magical happening in Tom Bunnell’s work. I have known Tom and his work for many years now and it is so exciting to see where his work is today. One of the many aspects that connects me to an artist’s work is the ability to feel their personality within it. I am not alluding to sentimentality or about psychologizing the intent, but to an idea that is framed by a belief in the immediacy of the visual culture we exist within.
As I stare into Tom’s work, I am smitten. Through the thinly veiled layers of oil paint that go from ultra-saturated motifs to ghostly traces of sanded marks, I am jolted into a reality where almost nothing bad exists. However, Tom talks about “memory and experience as a troubled marriage” that drives his process. The movement in the compositions flickers and shouts within the small and large scale of his canvases. Deftly painted with lots of subtractive elements, the paintings dance and sway as if in a never-ending courtship. I think we all grapple with that sensation of past and present and how it either flows together seamlessly or constantly interrupts or settles somewhere in between. Like a benign cyst that causes alarm and yet is simply a lump of useless flesh that sometimes throbs. Yet often times while there is this tendentious subtext, the outward result is something optimistic if not downright joyful.
His work falls squarely into the history of what Washington D.C. is artistically known for – the Washington Color School thanks to storied and influential critic Clement Greenberg, who wrote in 1954 that artists such as Gene Davis, Kenneth Noland, and Morris Louis were “color painters”. There have been multiple waves of artists who have been attributed to this school including, Alma Thomas, Anne Truitt, and the late Sam Gilliam. Tom Bunnell is perhaps in the 4th wave. As Kenneth Noland stated in an interview in 1977 “Thinness reveals color.” This process of using color in a way that stains the canvas makes the painting feel almost like a graphic print. Paint is the literal medium to communicate color and form, not action and not physicality- as was the case of the Abstract Expressionists – another major art movement promoted by Clement Greenberg.
I met Tom Bunnell in 2001 when I first started teaching as an Adjunct Professor at American University’s Department of Art in NW Washington D.C. He too was also teaching as an Adjunct Professor. Tom was born in Aspen, Colorado, and moved to Oregon where he received his BA and BFA in Art and Art History from the University of Oregon in 1995. He moved to D.C. to attend American University’s MFA program and graduated in 1998.
Over the past 22 years we have interacted during our night classes at AU, exchanging anecdotes and teaching stories that connected us as artists and friends. When I moved to Berlin in 2012, I had the pleasure of introducing his work in a group show at a small project space for The Studio Visit. Tom’s humility in his work and life is awe inspiring and his outlook in life is absolutely genuine. While his work is cerebral and nods to the decorative, the manner he layers his work with pattern and shapes with stuepfying levels of saturation seems trascendent. His process involves drawing and collage which is shown in the video.
With the state of humanity feeling like end times, Tom’s work brings authentic and expressive meaning to color, and demonstrates how color can be a means of transformation without any illusionistic intentions. And this, my friends, is exactly what the world needs right now. Truth.
To connect with Tom and his work, you can follow him on Instagram at @electriczither and his website at The Royal Artists Collective.