It’s hard to miss the vibrant panorama that adorns the freshly painted walls of Freds Downtown—the merging of figurative and abstract elements in a bold palette immediately demands a closer inspection. It’s that distinct element of free-form movement and striking composition that got rising artist Conor Thompson noticed by the Barneys creative team in the first place.
The L.A.-based artist caught the attention of Barneys VP of visuals (and avid art collector), Tommy Dobrzynski, during his solo show, “Head Over Heels,” at Greenpoint Terminal Gallery in New York last year. Smitten with Thompson’s work, Dobrzynski reached out to him about potentially purchasing a painting. He printed some images of his work and stuck them to a push board in his office.
After spotting the print-outs in Dobrzynski’s office, Barneys creative director Dennis Freedman took an immediate interest in Thompson. Before long, the young painter got a call from Barneys head office regarding commissioning a mural for Freds Downtown. “For this project, I really wanted to work with a young artist—someone who had not done a public commission before,” explains Freedman. “I feel that it’s in the DNA of Barneys to recognize and give opportunity to young talent. In the end, Conor did a terrific job of taking the elements we discussed and working them into an abstract composition.”
Thompson was born in Boston and earned a BFA from Rhode Island School of Design before relocating to L.A. a decade ago, where he’s currently earning an MFA from the University of California, Irvine. Last month, he flew to New York to see his “Modified Landscape” in its new home at Freds Downtown, and we caught up with him to discuss his alla prima oil-painting process and what it was like to create his first large-scale commission.
The Window: What was your reaction when Barneys reached out about the commission?
Conor Thompson: Apparently, Dennis was interested in my work after seeing it in Tommy’s office. I was already in touch with Tommy because he was interested in buying a piece, but then he called and mentioned this project. He asked if doing a large-scale commission interested me, and I funnily enough, I was already sort of fantasizing about getting to do more large-scale stuff. I had recently done some larger work in my grad school courses and really enjoyed it.
What about the aspect of creating art for a public space—did that interest you?
I had been thinking about doing something for an interior, something public. I love the history of murals in restaurants—this was something I was already familiar with. There’s such variety: Picasso’s “Le Tricorne” [in the Four Seasons] in the Seagram building, and then there are also paintings in diners. I always think of this one greasy spoon in Falmouth, Massachusetts, that has this great mural—sort of a folk painting of people sitting at the very same diner.
What’s it like working on a site-specific piece? How closely did you work with the visual team?
The first thing I did was to go see the Beverley Hills location, where the Rob Pruitt mural is installed. That way I could get the feel for Freds. Tommy and Dennis gave me a lot of freedom. There was a good balance of specificity in our conversations, along with freedom. When I was in New York for a show in September, Dennis came and looked at some of my smaller paintings and pointed out areas that resonated with him or where the tone would seem to work for the mural.
How did you get started on the piece?
I did a lot of drawing before starting. In my previous body of work that includes larger paintings, I experimented with unusual formats—for example, tall and narrow rectangles, almost like door size. I became interested in the challenge of composing in that format. This project takes that idea to the extreme, because it’s really a panorama—a long and narrow rectangle. I approached it trying to figure out how to resolve the composition within the parameters of the format. There are three separate panels and breaks, but I definitely think of it as one cohesive piece.
What sort of motifs and elements did you incorporate?
There is an element of morning, afternoon, and evening as your eyes move from left to right, which gave me a way to break up the space. Thematically, it’s resonant but ambiguous enough to be interesting.
Tell us about the process of actually creating it.
I had three finished charcoal drawings that became the painting—each composition mapped out in each panel. Once I started actually painting, I just had to keep going quite fast—especially because of the scale. I did one panel at a time knowing ahead of time what moves I wanted to make since I had done all the drawings going into it. Some of the colors I improvised, but most of it I had mapped out in my mind. My paintings are kind of loose in a way, and there’s a freshness that comes from the alla prima oil process, which means wet into wet painting. It needs to be done rather rapidly with the paint being directly applied without a lot of fuss. This was a lot of fun to make! Matisse said that before you start a painting, you want to strangle someone, and once you’re in it, it becomes joyful—at least if it goes well!
What mood do you hope the final painting conveys?
I wanted to painting to be joyful, while having a dark side too. I don’t know if it’s intentional or not, but there’s something a little foreboding without being menacing. I think the buoyancy and pleasure of painting outweigh the dark side, but I think it’s important to have it in there somewhere. It can’t all just be happy playtime all the time, or else it would be like a pharmaceutical commercial!
Where in L.A. is your studio?
I have a studio five blocks from my house, which is in Lincoln Heights, outside of Downtown L.A. Nobody in L.A. can walk to their studio, so it’s pretty amazing. It’s right on Broadway and it’s very neighborhood-y—lots of old storefronts. I draw a lot of inspiration just by walking those few blocks from my house to the studio. The storefronts and dollar stores always have these great paintings displayed in their windows—the dry cleaners has these funny cartoons and the little juice stands have these humble paintings of fruits that I just love.
You live in L.A. but are from the East Coast. Have both environments shaped your work?
I think so. The love of painting comes from being raised on the East Coast, where there’s a beautiful tradition of painting. Being in California, the environment, landscape, and culture influence me a lot. I think when I moved to L.A., I was very aware of wanting to synthesize the East Coast and West Coast influences.
For more information or to make a reservation, call Freds Downtown at 646.264.6402, and follow @fredsatbarneys for all the latest happenings at all of our Freds locations.