NOTES FROM A RETRO-ROMANTIC REALIST
Text: Anne Ellis
Todd Garner paintings change the world. Not on a global scale, this is more a national issue. For Garner, a native-born fourth-generation Californian, has chosen to set up home and studio in the Garnethill district of Glasgow. Seen through his eyes Scotland’s remaining Art-deco buildings have become out-posts of film-noirish, nineteen-thirties Pasadena. “Moving from the West Coast of America to the West Coast of Scotland has called for a major adjustment in my perception of how I define myself and what I now hold previous. A different culture surrounds me and has slowly seeped into my subconscious in benign but insidious ways. My artwork seems to point this out to me before I am consciously aware of it myself.”
A different culture it may be, but one which he has adopted totally. And although it requires perceptual shift, Todd’s illusory topography is far from untraceable. He simply portrays everyday prospects from the viewpoint of a glamorous past. Painterly retrospection augments the society in which viewers actually live, and two distinctly separate cultural realms merge comfortably under the guiding hand of an artist who understands the power of autosuggestion. No real Glaswegian would find it difficult to imagine him or herself in Hollywood? Glasgow once boasted more cinemas per head of the population than any other city in Britain and, with the rise of the multiplex, looks like heading down that same road into a now familiar Hollywood sunset.
Todd’s paintings are not just for Glasgow; they are for anyone anywhere with a modicum of imagination and a smidgeon of art appreciation. His compositions mark moments in time rather than specific locations. “My approach to my art work, and probably my life in general, is rather haphazard. I see my mind as a compost heap mouldering and smouldering away with all the detritus of my past experiences.” The narratives that spring from all that past experience are supported by an intuitive feel for composition. A chiaroscuro technique borrowed from the old masters lights each little drama with a film-noir intensity. And like any good film-set designer, Todd pays great attention to costumes and props. Carefully replicated period pieces enliven his canvases, adding authenticity and atmosphere: a structure of images, signifiers of time and place held together by the glue of nostalgia.
Trained in oils, yet Todd uses acrylic paints. “They give an old-world technique a twentieth century twist.” He has developed an accumulative effect where layer upon layer of paint is built up and does not block out the translucency of the primal layers. His scale is small, domestically sized; just right for a painter who prefers to work on several pieces at the same time. Close tonal relationships support the tight compositions. Colour is laid on sparingly but with impact, like a pair of ruby drops against a creamy white skin. His technical skills were learned at American art schools, but perfected as Artist in Residence in both Paris and Edinburgh.
Todd also studied Ceramics and has made many interesting pieces of ceramic art. A painting that emphasizes his multi-faceted approach depicts Todd admiring the finish product of a recent commission to recreate the original 1930’s tiled floor in the Glasgow Film Theatre. Given his interest in film, ceramics, and the art of the ‘deco’ period he seemed the natural choice.
Not surprisingly for someone who comes from Pasadena, Raymond Chandler is a boyhood hero. Todd himself becomes the model for the archetypal American Private Eye. In ‘Halo’, a painting from his recent show at Glasgow’s Art Exposure Gallery, he stands full on, questioning the spectator in a typical Marlow pose. Relaxed yet somehow taut with defiance, he waits in a booth for a call from some dame who has “eyes so deep you could drown in them.” There are other references detectable, more recognizable to an older British audience; for etched in the glass door above the gumshoe’s head is a halo, the calling card of Leslie Charteris’s upper-class sleuth, the Saint. However I doubt if the Saint ever slouched, even for aesthetic effect. Rich in literary references, it is equally well endowed in tonal and compositional contrasts: the laid-back pose, the crumpled shirt and trousers of the male figure are all perfect foils for the strong verticals of the maple-wood telephone booth which seek to contain it.
‘Waiting for a Call’ is a composition in which Todd and his wife are the models. They are shown in his own hallway, one sitting on a tall Mackintosh chair, the other standing waiting for the phone to ring. On the wall above hangs a representation of one of Todd’s landscapes. Tone, lighting, and composition work together to create a suitably tense atmosphere. There is a mystery: exactly what it is evades us. Todd supplies the scenario: the spectator provides the story line.
Among others, including the Scots Cadell and Conroy, the American artist Edward Hopper is one of Todd’s artistic heroes. However unlike Hopper, the artist of alienation, Garner allows his figures the warmth of human contact. In ‘Intimate Conversation’ a couple’s loving smile excludes intruders. Their emotional bond is further developed by a zig-zag composition with a muscular emotional charge and a strong sense of artistic integrity. The dramatic tableau is dominant but not at the cost of painterly technique. Pictorial depth is achieved by the angled light source and by setting the circular plane of the coffee table at right angles to the picture surface. The figures are dressed in thirties’ style and all the props are accurate from that long elegant cigarette-holder to a black-and-white art-deco ashtray that actually comes from the liner Queen Mary, via Glasgow Barrows of course. Craftsman as well as storyteller, Todd knows the important of blending the two. “Fundamentally I think art is composed of two aspects: the rational and the technical. The rational incorporated invention and intention. This aspect usually gets labeled as an ‘ism’. I suppose, if my work was to be so labelled, it would fall into something like ‘retro romantic realism’.”
The Queen Mary is more than a stylistic prop. As an art student Todd stayed in Long Beach and last December went back there to the old Queen for his wedding and honeymoon. It figures as a background in many of his recent works. Stateroom and promenade decks are worked into analogies of modern life. Particularly poignant is a painting called, ‘Waiters’. The bar of the Queen Mary is the backdrop: the large etched glass sign for the waiters’ station the eponymous centre. Everybody is waiting for something. The sign applies to us all. Waiting is a favoured theme in Todd’s artistic oeuvre. By its very nature it’s dramatic; a temporal hiatus between good and evil, an enforced pause between now and what might be.
In an earlier show, in the Collins Gallery, Todd painted a thought-provoking series called ‘American Postcards’ in which he, in grubby mac detective mode, posed beside his own paintings of famous Scottish landmarks like Loch Lomond and Glenfinnan. The ‘mac’ on this occasion is more representative of the vagaries of the northern weather than a prop for a detective’s-eye view of the scene. The show completely sold out. Todd had managed to say something fresh, new and exciting about an over-exposed and exploited element of Scotland’s picturesque scenery. He cut through tourism’s tartan-tat and invited us to see that wonderful landscape through a fresh pair of eyes.
Artistic ideas come easily to Todd. He doesn’t overwork them. Like Marlow, when he has had enough, he moves on to another case. Life here in this foreign country offers him a sufficiently intriguing angle from which to represent his own view of life. For him ideas are like seeds grown through the compost heap of his mind. “The ‘seeds’ – the effect of leaving friends and family behind, being adrift in a foreign but vaguely familiar culture, finding life, love, and new friends in a unique setting, etc. etc.; are in there, but you see…. the mulch kicked in and now I’m as clueless as the rest of you as to what it’s all about.”