Fan Mail

Fan Mail: John Tierney

John Tierney’s paintings have a distinct relationship to cinema. Hollywood, California, and the greater Los Angeles area are awash in a rich and intense light that seems to linger over everything with an endless glow, a light as potent as the dreams and realities of fame and stardom promised by the movie companies that populate the city. For a representational painter such as Tierney, the kind of light and environment that Los Angeles offers is irresistible. Tierney’s paintings all exude a deft and consistent touch that creates flattened yet realistic planes, and a seemingly airbrushed texture that mirrors the textures of the objects depicted.

John Tierney. Elvis is on the Building, Palm Springs, 2013; oil on canvas; 20 x 16 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

John Tierney. Elvis Is on the Building, Palm Springs, 2013; oil on canvas; 20 x 16 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

Tierney’s paintings capture the capacities and fallacies of images to both concretize and mystify. These mystifiers are not problematic for Tierney, merely interesting and somewhat opportune. The artist explains: “Edward Hopper once referred to grasping the ‘surprise and accidents of nature.’ While my position is, in this sense, congruent with his, I am also interested in grasping the surprise and accidents of photographs—light and shade, movement, the deportment of people. In short, engaging with the serendipity inherent in a photographic image.” Elvis Aaron Presley is a potent symbol of the draw of stardom, and of the power of Hollywood and the music industry to create near-mythological figures out of ordinary people. In Elvis Is on the Building, Palm Springs (2013), Tierney pairs a mural-size image of Elvis in profile, instantly recognizable, with a group of palm trees in hyperrealistic detail growing just behind a house with a roof covered in Spanish ceramic tiles. As Elvis stares back through the picture plane, viewers are reminded that the man the world knew was forged in Memphis and in Hollywood—iconic towns known for producing iconic figures.

John Tierney. The Arrival, Los Angeles, 2014; oil on canvas; 24 x 30 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

John Tierney. The Arrival, Los Angeles, 2014; oil on canvas; 24 x 30 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

Photography reinforces urban and cinematic tropes and now defines the human experience of place and history. In The Arrival, Los Angeles (2014), Tierney paints what appears to be a young man having just arrived in the city on his motorcycle—wearing a helmet and leather jacket decorated with patriotic American symbols, the bald eagle and the American flag—as he gazes up at the infamous Hollywood sign framed by a series of palm trees. The palm trees in The Arrival, Los Angeles are alive with movement and are depicted in hyper-real detail, but they are the only part of this painting depicted with photographic precision. By painting this Los Angeles icon, a species of plant that was imported to the once-desert city, Tierney is subtly pointing directly to photography and cinema—pictures—as mystifiers, mediums that forge their own reality much as the city and surrounding area did.

John Tierney. Magnolia Bakery, W 3rd St, LA, 2012; oil on canvas; 30 x 24 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

John Tierney. Magnolia Bakery, W 3rd St, LA, 2012; oil on canvas; 30 x 24 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

While Tierney depicts the Los Angeles area in many of his paintings, he is also keenly invested in exploring the interior spaces of another iconic American city: New York, particularly the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). In MoMA, NY #5 (2014), Tierney again depicts the back of a young man, this time in a MoMA gallery looking at a large abstract painting that stretches beyond the frame of Tierney’s canvas. Dressed for winter or rain, the figure is a reversal of the warm atmosphere issued forth by Tierney’s paintings of Southern California cityscapes.

John Tierney. MoMA, NY #5, 2015; oil on canvas; 20 x 24 inches. Courtesy of the Artist.

John Tierney. MoMA, NY #5, 2015; oil on canvas; 20 x 24 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

The crisp shadows of the man’s pants and jacket, and the strong line that demarcates the white gallery wall from the soft wood floor, give this painting an intense geometry that is balanced by the abstract qualities of the painting the man gazes at. By painting a series of works that depict visitors to this particular painting exhibition at MoMA, Tierney begins to open the expected and rarely depicted behaviors of gallery goers.

John Tierney. MoMA, NY #1, 2014; oil on canvas; 20 x 24. Courtesy of the artist.

John Tierney. MoMA, NY #1, 2014; oil on canvas; 20 x 24 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

In MoMA, NY #1 (2014), a young woman faces the same large abstract painting as the young man in MoMA, NY #5, yet she is shown in a slight profile while taking a photograph of the painting from the side. The artist has depicted the woman in all black and wearing headphones, a well-worn art-world trope, reframing the painting through the small camera embedded in her cellular phone—she is guarded, resisting a direct experience with the painting, leaning as if unsure of what exactly she is looking at.

John Tierney has an unusual interest in using painting as a way to decode and explore photography through a specific lens. As he includes or erases specific signs and motifs—the black uniform, the palm tree, a larger-than-life painting of Elvis’s face—Tierney gives the viewer a moment to contemplate, one that often mirrors the subjects he himself is depicting.

John Tierney is a UK-based artist and has recently retired from his post as a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Durham University in England. Tierney’s work has been shown internationally in solo and group exhibitions in Santa Monica, Los Angeles, and Joshua Tree, California; New York City; and London. In 2012 Tierney collaborated with British fashion designer Paul Smith on a series of limited-edition objects, and his work is currently being shown at Hamburg Kennedy Photographs, Coda Gallery, and Saatchi Online. Instagram: @johntierneyart.

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