Petite in scale yet grand in nostalgic vision, Thomas Ascott’s latest solo exhibition of pop surrealistic oil paintings and graphite drawings at Arch Enemy Arts – entitled “Small Dreams” – features utterly endearing, youthfully unencumbered vignettes steeped in the beautiful simplicity of life’s little pleasures. His origami-folding rhino-salamanders and contentedly knitting tardigrades softly and oh-so-sweetly tug at the beholder’s heartstrings, encouraging us to happily meander down the road of our childhood dreams. It is within that botanically boisterous safe haven of misty woods and mossy outcroppings that everything vibrates at a higher frequency. The American artist’s narratives aren’t merely just a return to innocence. They’re a stirring reminder of the days when finding our bliss was as simple and pure as being in the company of a good friend while soaring off on the wings of our unbridled imaginations.
Ahead of Thomas Ascott’s June 3rd opening reception, he was kind enough to chat with Beautiful Bizarre about how he landed on the unique concept for several key pieces in his latest collection as well as how the manifestation process really kept him on his toes. However, of the many interesting things that came to light during our exclusive interview with him (below), we were particularly touched by the realization that the characteristic sweetness that emanates from his creepy-cute compositions is a natural extension of the very values that the artist holds near and dear to his own heart. We’re sure that you’ll delight in Thomas’ latest array of spirit-elevating images as much as we do, because we’re all old and wise enough today to cherish our truly divine yesterdays.
Thomas Ascott, “Small Dreams”
Opening Reception: Friday, June 3, 2022 | 5 – 9 pm
Exhibition Dates: May 20 – June 12
Arch Enemy Arts
109 Arch Street | Philadelphia, PA 19106 | (215) 717-7774
Monday to Friday, 10 am to 4 pm | Saturday and Sunday, 11 am to 5 pm
For sales or private viewing appointments, please email [email protected]
About the Gallery // Arch Enemy Arts was founded in 2012 and quickly became Philly’s freshest new venue dedicated to exhibiting emerging and established artists, both local and international. Located in Philadelphia’s Old City District, the gallery has consistently featured lowbrow, pop-surrealism, urban, and macabre art in a wide range of mediums. Arch Enemy Arts was chosen as the best exhibiting space in Philadelphia Magazine’s “Best of Philly”™ 40th Anniversary issue, as well as the “Best Art Gallery in Philadelphia” on Philly HotList in 2012 and 2013.
I tend to balance cute with creepy because I don’t want it to come across as saccharine, and the art that I find most interesting is that which is beautiful but at the same time slightly unsettling.
Exclusive Interview With Thomas Ascott
Would you classify your art as dark surrealism…or pop surrealism…or something entirely different? It seems like it’s art…with heart.
I think that art with heart is accurate. I don’t try to quantify it too much but I definitely aim for a certain tone. I’m not aiming for dark but rather more of a creepy cute vibe. Even if someone finds some of my imagery is creepy, hopefully it will still make them smile a little.
Even with the occasional presence of skeletons in your paintings, there always seems to be a sweet, nostalgic innocence that consistently shines through, as if you’re creating artistically rendered memories of your childhood while exploring the Smoky Mountains. Why does that realm/theme continue to provide such a wellspring of creative inspiration for you?
It makes me smile, plus it’s a nostalgic reflection of my own childhood as well as what my three daughters have experienced (which is why I incorporate so much crafting imagery in my art).
Are the forests that serve as the backdrop for your works a little haunted? Is that reflective of how you felt as a child or is that a visual device that serves as a stand in for the crazy world that we all live in today?
Sure, the forest can be dark but at the same time, it is dappled in sunlight, so for me, it’s always been a place of tranquility and magic. I don’t think I have any negative associations with it. Instead of dangers hiding in the shadows, I’ve always felt that the forest contains undiscovered creatures and secret cave entrances.
The occasional skeletons that pop up in your paintings hint at looming mortality. However, they wear clothing that is suitable for children and generally engage in lighthearted activities. Are they intended to be a Memento Mori-esque reminder or something entirely different?
Art is always open to the interpretation of the viewer. I never think of my skeleton girls as being dead, but rather a personification of my three daughters and their traits. That type of character emerged for the first time when one of my daughters – who was five at the time – was sitting next to me on the couch watching me draw in my sketchbook. Just to make her smile, I drew a skeleton in a dress that was surrounded by little forest creatures watching her dance.
True blue friendship/love seems like a very prominent thread in your narrative – and perhaps caring more about what’s on the inside than the differences that are on the outside. Is that a conscious goal in your work?
Those are recurring themes in my art, but I try not to be too conscious of it while creating my work. I worry that if I do, then it may come across as too deliberate or didactic. Instead, I focus on the overall tone and how the piece makes me feel.
Instead of dangers hiding in the shadows, I’ve always felt that the forest contains undiscovered creatures and secret cave entrances.
Your paintings always seem so well balanced, whether with elements of light and dark or innocence and foreboding. How important is yin and yang in your artistic process and execution?
I try to balance the bitter with the sweet because, in general, I like to paint and draw what makes me smile. I tend to balance cute with creepy because I don’t want it to come across as saccharine, and the art that I find most interesting is that which is beautiful but at the same time slightly unsettling.
What inspired you to incorporate some of the imagery you created for your 2021 Arch Enemy Arts solo show into a few of this year’s visual compositions?
Initially, I was thinking about how the choice of subject matter for my tiny paintings would be interpreted by the viewer. That’s how I came up with the idea of incorporating a few of the pieces I created last year into my latest collection of paintings. I thought it would look visually interesting plus I knew it would be challenging but a lot of fun to execute.
I was somewhat able to avoid any implied symbolism that might unpredictably shift the tone of the paintings by giving them an external purpose…namely showcasing my previous show. But for the most part, it really just seemed like a fun challenge! :)
While creating each ‘portrait within a portrait’, how were you able to capture so many fine details? That seems really challenging given that you were working within a one inch square!
I use the hands-free solution of reading glasses and good lighting. For the really tiny details, I actually wear a double stacked pair of +3.25 reading glasses at the same time.
Art is always open to the interpretation of the viewer. I never think of my skeleton girls as being dead, but rather a personification of my three daughters and their traits.
Were the miniature aspects of each piece far more time consuming to execute than the ‘normal’ components?
The process for the tiny paintings tends to be the same as the larger ones. They still have to be manifested over multiple sittings just to get the glazing and detailing right. The amount of time necessary to create them isn’t as much of an issue as the stress involved, since it’s hard to make corrections at the scale.
So, while they are time consuming, they also require a high level of precision, and I only have one shot at getting it right. I usually add details until I lose my nerve. Do I risk ruining what is already a nice-looking eye or do I try to add a little highlight to the pupil? Mouths are the scariest. Even with a normal sized painting, the slightest change to the corner of the mouth radically alters the facial expression.
Of all the regularly occurring characters in your paintings, there is SOMETHING about your salamander that strikes the beholder like a love dart straight through the heart. How do you achieve that je ne sais quoi time and time again?
Thank you so much for saying so! It helps that salamanders are cute as hell to begin with.
What utterly cliché advice has made a measurable impact on your current career success?
It all comes down to trying to consistently create art that is a little bit better than it previously was. Sharing my art on Instagram, for example, has really helped me to constantly refine my output while also keeping it fresh.