The Eternal Sunshine of a Cluttered Mind

Local ‘Millennial Impressionist’ Tom Colcord finds peace and tranquility in his Maximalist meditations.

The Japanese poet Bashō once wrote that “the journey itself is home,” meaning that one’s destination is not some terminal point but wherever we find ourselves, both physically and metaphysically. San Francisco-based painter Tom Colcord explores these themes of subjectivity and transition in decadent Surrealist landscapes, which offer viewers a meditative space to contemplate contemporary life. 

He’s also had a year full of unexpected turns and reevaluations. His rent at home had been increased nearly 25 percent, a change that his lease prevented him from fighting. The basement studio in the Bayview, which he shared with another painter, had become too much to maintain. He was also looking for a better-paying job. But within a few months, Colcord started working as an art teacher at an elementary school in Mountain View, and decided to move in with his girlfriend. Then he won the Tournesol Award, a prestigious fellowship at the Headlands Center for the Arts in Marin. “It was like a magic spell was sparked and everything fell into place,” he says.

The Tournesol Award, given once a year, grants one local painter a private studio at the center, along with a hefty stipend, chef-prepared meals, and all the perks of communing with fellow residents. The residency is ideal for a landscape painter: Tucked away in the Marin Headlands, the center occupies a cluster of decommissioned military barracks and other buildings at the edge of the continent, where views from the studios overlook fog shrouded hilltops dotted with eucalyptus trees and low-lying shrubs. 

I visited Colcord at the center on an overcast afternoon in August, perfect for sitting around discussing his work and influences, which range from literature to animated films to jazz. The 850-square-foot studio felt like an explosion of creative energy, full of finished paintings and blank canvases, racks of materials, and enough chairs to host a small artist’s salon. The cavernous, whitewashed ceilings and multi-paned windows brought a calm, airy feeling to the space. Colcord opened the door onto the fire escape on his side of the building to show me the scene he’s been working from. Residents aren’t allowed onto the rusted platform, so Colcord positions an easel in the doorway to paint the landscape.

LANDSCAPES TO DREAMSCAPES

A native of Indianapolis, Colcord was trained in figurative painting at University of Indiana Bloomington. Students were encouraged to work strictly from life. “It was frowned upon to work from references,” Colcord says, meaning that using photographs was considered a form of cheating and you earned your stripes by getting your boots muddy. When you’re painting a landscape, it becomes “a conversation between you and the thing you’re observing. There’s something primordial about it.” 

Colcord came to San Francisco for graduate school, earning an MFA at the San Francisco Art Institute in 2017, where his work began to develop conceptually. While he still regularly works from life, Colcord also has found a way to use reference photos that is deeply rooted in the themes of perception his work explores. He now has two main bodies of work: landscape paintings which he makes from life, and paintings he copies from laboriously collaged Photoshop images. The copies of the digital collages deal with the fluidity of perception, in which several elements collide and overlap; the landscape paintings explore the immediately perceivable limits of perception. “In all my work, I’m talking about how our perceptions are subjective,” Colcord says. “And [a painting] does that really well, because it’s a still, visual square that forces you to confront that one thing.” 

The collaged paintings are dreamy visions of the unconscious, offering the viewer space to meditate on the content and whatever associations might come up for them; the landscapes offer so much visual density that they act almost like mantras, exercises in repetition counterintuitively producing clarity. “I don’t think of myself as an abstract painter,” he says, “but as someone who is interested in painting about abstract ideas.”

Colcord has been called a “Millennial Impressionist painter,” self-identifies as a Maximalist, and is also something of a Surrealist. Maximalism, as an aesthetic of excess, was developed as a reaction to Minimalism in the 1960s and leaned on the conviction that “more is more” as opposed to the Minimalist notion “less is more.” The contemporary cultural moment, however, is defined by an abundance of information, from the sensory overload of city living to the relentless onslaught of images and information coming from our smartphones. “I think it’s part of the Millennial experience,” Colcord, 31, says. “I’m overwhelmed all the time.” 

The logical aesthetic response to this inundation might be a return to Minimalism. Instead, Colcord sees Maximalism as the necessary approach to exploring this experience, forcing him to slow down in his laborious reproduction of the oversaturated world. “There’s so much going on already and so many things to think about, and I don’t necessarily think that’s a natural way to live. I’m attracted to stopping and looking.” With density being the unifying aesthetic across his multiple bodies of work, painting offers Colcord the opportunity to process his experience and give others the space to do the same.

There’s no question life is overwhelming, a constant state of stimulation only exacerbated by the constant feed of information that can paralyze the human mind, which copes by generalizing. A pertinent scientific example: we don’t actually see every single leaf on a tree when we look at it; our brain fills in a general referent based on prior experiences and expectations. In Seeing The Forest for The Trees, Colcord’s second solo show at Glass Rice in the Tenderloin, he offers 15 new paintings blending Maximalism and Surrealism in vivid landscapes that give viewers the space to pause for reflection. Colcord seems to see not only every tree, but every leaf, using the density of the natural world to counter the sensory overload of urban and technologized life, harnessing the chaos to create clarity.

The Best Place I Could Be in Such a Strange World, 2019, is exemplar of Colcord’s digital-first compositions and the way he negotiates the complexities of perception in his work. The painting shows San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts relocated to a verdant wilderness setting, a stag wading through the surrounding field of wildflowers beneath a glowing blood moon. The recontextualization of the familiar arts monument into a wilder California landscape defamiliarizes the subject, forcing us to question its placement in the real world, too. 

Like the best remix of a musical track, Colcord’s remix of visual motifs juxtaposes the selections in a way that simultaneously calls attention to each element while producing a result greater than the sum of its parts, working as an externalization of the subconscious experience we overlay onto the visually perceivable world. It’s also a manifestation of the city’s own subconscious: wilderness suppressed beneath concrete. It isn’t hard to imagine the paved streets surrounding the Palace of Fine Arts returned to their pre-colonized state of nature, and here Colcord offers viewers the opportunity to realize that fantasy. Even the title hints at some form of negotiating the unnatural urban landscape that we take for granted in a land that was once lush: The best place to be is within our own projections of a future that might preserve parts of human culture while finding harmony with a more natural past.

A FRESH PERSPECTIVE 

The recent relocation of Colcord’s studio from the heart of the city to a landscape closer to primordial California has had a profound effect on his process. “In [the Bayview] there’s extreme lights and darks and a lot of saturation,” he said, “but [the Headlands] isn’t like that, so my imagination is filling things in a little more now. I’m a little more free.” What began as an environmental impact on his landscape paintings has made its way into the digital-first pieces, too. Where he used to copy the collages precisely, he’s become more interpretive. “I’m starting with an abstract background and choosing a color palette and putting in bits as I go,” he said. “Now it’s about what to omit rather than what to put in, while still taking a Maximal approach.”

Grave of the Fireflies, 2021, represents this new direction. The deep purples and reds of the cosmic landscape manifest an alien vision of forest undergrowth, the tangled vines and weeds electrified beneath a red sky. The composition is easily one of Colcord’s most effectively Surreal, eerily bizarre while still rendered with Figurative precision. Two moons, one full and the other waning, hang in tandem in the night sky, complemented by the lamp-like glow of fireflies dotting the canvas. A lightly painted human skull, almost unnoticeable, is tucked away in the midst of the foliage. It’s a gentle reminder of the fleeting nature of existence and the inevitable return to nature, and of the death drive behind the human unconscious that informs our engagement with the world of the living. It’s a heady mix of the recognizable and the fantastic, forcing viewers to bridge the gap between what they’re seeing and what their imaginations fill in.

Even in his adamantly realist landscapes, Colcord finds a way to introduce questions of how we negotiate our presence in a chaotic world. Colcord’s figurative chops shine in Fountain Under Quarantine, 2021, which was made behind his old studio in the Bayview. The dense landscape transports viewers to an overgrown garden, rose bushes and cacti swirling around the titular fountain. Like the skull in Grave, a small statue of the Buddha sits serenely at the base of the composition, a didactic manifestation of the viewer’s experience of harmonious reverence brought about by the surprisingly calming clutter. 

These landscapes bring to mind comparisons from the portraiture of Kehinde Wiley to members of the Bay Area Figurative Movement, like Wayne Thiebaud and landscape legend Richard Diebenkorn. Wiley predominantly paints Realist portraits of Black people, floating atop intricate floral backgrounds. As in Colcord’s paintings, the Maximalist technique actually focuses the viewer’s attention. In Wiley’s 2018 official presidential portrait of Barack Obama, for example, the foliage surrounding the president forces our gaze to meet his, a communion amidst the chaos. Thiebaud’s and Diebenkorn’s paintings, while sparser by design, emphasize an Impressionistic experience of the California landscape through vibrant colors and a sense of presence in the places they depict. Colcord blends these two approaches to create a unique vision of landscape: one colored by his own subjective experience.

Other visual influences on Colcord’s work include the French and Japanese comic book artists Moebius (The Incal) and Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira). A departure from Colcord’s usual style, the small paintings Moebius Plant and Spout, both 2021, offer glimpses of an overgrown garden rendered in detailed pen-and-ink linework closer to the comic book artists than other formidable painters, and colored in pastel watercolors. A larger watercolor, Sweating in the Sun, Looking Towards the Moon, 2021, while the greatest departure from Colcord’s usual style, feels like an essential synthesis: The intense detail and the extreme colors foreground an Impressionistic version of Colcord’s hyper-detailed experience of the perceivable landscape.

But Colcord isn’t beholden to visual influences. Literature plays a major role in the philosophical side of his work as well. Magical Realism has been a recent source of inspiration — the authors Gabriel García Márquez, Jorge Luis Borges, and Haruki Murakami, specifically. While all three speak to Colcord’s Surrealist tendencies, Murakami is the most Maximalist; the Japanese novelist regularly produces works in the range of 500-1,000 pages. Murakami’s Maximalism, like Colcord’s, bolsters his Surrealist tendencies. In order for Murakami to create the suspension of disbelief necessary for the reader to buy into a world of talking cats, he provides an excess of mundane details. 

Half of Magical Realism is, after all, Realism. By crowding his canvases with detail, Colcord achieves the same suspension of disbelief that allows us to enter into the viewing experience as a manifestation of our own subconscious, pushing back on and questioning our perceptions of what is real. Like the conscious and the subconscious, reality and the metaphysical are two states separated only by a thin veil, and Colcord’s paintings grant viewers access to the space between. “I’ve always been attracted to liminal spaces,” Colcord says. “It’s the feeling of being neither here nor there; when you’re on a long road trip and it’s too late to turn around but you still have a long way to go. There’s something about that that is fundamental to the human spirit of transition.”

PRESENT TENSE 

Colcord makes his magic in the space between his own consciousness and viewers’ perceptions, each painting a gateway into the contemplative space where the subconscious comes out to play. And this has as much to do with the visual elements Colcord provides as it does with whatever baggage the viewer brings to the experience of looking at a painting. As the art critic Clement Greenberg said, “the artist is no longer able to estimate the response of his audience to the symbols and references with which he works.” The best one can do is limit the noise of the world by framing a set of referents to focus the viewer’s attention and let them fill in the blanks — a feat of orchestration Colcord manages superbly. His largest paintings are around 6’ x 6’, certainly big enough to communicate some form of overwhelm but ultimately contained enough to offer a manageable experience, one in which the viewer is able to take back a little control over their sensory inputs. The paintings are reflecting pools, not oceans, inviting viewers to wade in without being drowned.

But even Colcord’s process is one of negotiating intake. Information is always coming in, from the books he’s reading to the podcasts he listens to while he works. All these influences find their way onto the canvas, if not always visually then at least metaphysically.

“When I look at the painting,” Colcord says, “I remember all those things that went into it: What I was listening to, what I was eating. It’s all in there. [Painting] is a form of meditation and spirituality to me. It’s a safe space where I can process and control the information coming in. Once you put something into the world, it’s out of your hands. What ends up mattering is how the painting process serves you as a process of reflection.”

But the finished product also serves as a space for the viewer to reflect. “Everyone has a different mental operating system completely incompatible with anyone else’s,” Colcord says, “and it’s constantly changing. Even our memories aren’t reliable: they change every time you remember something. I’m interested in the fact that no one seems to really know anything.” As the Zen proverb goes: Knowing is not the way.

Colcord’s own artistic journey reflects this fluidity, as does his outlook towards what might come next. When applying to graduate programs, Colcord initially had his heart set on the East Coast, but ultimately accepted a competitive funding package from the Art Institute. After coming to San Francisco, his perspective shifted.

“There’s a freedom here that might be related to California’s weirdness in general,” he says. “Someone once told me that you go to New York to be important, you go to L.A. to be famous, and you go to San Francisco to be yourself. I feel like I made it just by virtue of being here.” 

These are modest words from a man whose presence in the local art world continues to expand. But as with the oversaturation of information surrounding us, Colcord is always looking for a way to temper the experience of extremes. “Happiness comes and goes,” he says. “What you need is purpose and fulfillment to live a life that’s meaningful. That’s how painting functions for me. The future is such a question. I’m trying to teach myself to live in the moment as much as possible.”

The object of one’s meditation might be their own breath or an oil painting, but it is the enlightenment we attain through the process of making and looking at art that can aid us in perceiving and engaging the world we live in a little more clearly.

Seeing The Forest for The Trees is on view by appointment at Glass Rice Wednesday-Saturday through Sept. 25. Prints of Colcord’s work are available through Voss Gallery.

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