“I’ve seen some pretty weird versions of a ‘gallery’, and this is one of the least intrusive spaces I’ve seen the work in,” American artist Tom Savage says of The Valley’s TWFINEART Gallery. “It’s very peaceful and the focus is on the work, not the way the sun reflects through the windows or anything like that. It’s for people that really wanna think about the work.”
Savage, who sounds a bit like a friendlier, Californian version of Lou Reed, is telling me about his newest exhibition, Love Notes from the West, sitting in one corner of the warm white space. Our gallery walk-through turns into more of sit down, as Savage talks abstract expressionist art history, soul music and the uneasy union of art and money.
Sitting and contemplating is the right way to examine Savage’s work, letting the ideas slowly make themselves known. Walking into TWFINEART, the initial encounter with Savage’s large paintings in a space like this is slightly overwhelming – layers of shape and colour leap from canvases around the small windowless white-walled room. But with stillness the paintings start to make a beautiful kind of abstract sense.
Savage reckons one of the biggest hurdles to making these densely layered works was knowing when to stop. “My idea is always to try to do something ‘finished’, but leave it alone at the same time,” he says. “I think about Chinese painters from the 1500s and 1600s, where they had so much potential with just a few simple marks. To be able to do that and then just walk away – that’s really difficult. I’ve made so many mistakes sometimes, and I know exactly where they started. I’ve just walked in to do one or two little things and it’s just sent me in a direction that screwed up the painting.”
Savage says that deciding when a work is finished only comes after “a lot of long, torturous conversations with myself. I ask myself, ‘Is it going to communicate with a large amount of people?’ ‘Am I fooling myself?’ It’s really important to me for an abstract painting to speak to a person and not just beat them over the head with your ability to smear paint around. It might take a few days of looking at it, or I might just walk through the studio once and know it’s done.”
It’s tempting, when dealing with work that, on the surface, seems to comment on a kind of clutter, urban disconnection and unease, to draw some kind of political parallel; especially when the painter happens to be American. Savage, however, says his art doesn’t seek to make political statements. “I’m a bit of a hermit when it comes to world politics,” he says. “I look to a more soulful approach to art. I’m looking to express myself and my own feelings.
“I’ve also always felt I have to be ‘doing’ something all the time, making something,” Savage continues. “Some kinds of conceptual art theorists saw a finished product – a painting in this case – as unimportant, secondary to the ideas. They thought having a product often just left you at the mercy of the gallery system. I never worried about any of that; I paint because it feels right. And I think if you’re doing it right you know.”
There’s no one particular feeling that dominates the paintings in this exhibition. Some have a lot of perceived depth, layer after layer, drawing you in to bring your own interpretation into the familiar and unfamiliar shapes. Some revel in their lack of depth, blunt objects that dare you to guess what the artist was thinking. Savage says he often doesn’t know himself. “Sometimes my act of painting is quite spontaneous and retracing the steps and the ideas is really hard. I’ll get to a point where I’ve been making something and I’ll think, ‘How the hell did I get here?’”
Love Notes from the West is on at TWFINEART until July 10.