I wrote this profile for Tom Billings a few years ago for an article. He is a master of the universe.
“Painting is the one and only thing in my life that I have ever been able to master.”
This statement by Tom Billings is as much a truth as it is a lie. It is a simple and powerful declaration filled with contradiction, honesty, and sense of challenge.
This is a portal to the landscape of emotional alchemy where a prismatic interpretation of time, history, and culture fuel the vehicle from which the painter, Thomas Billings surveys his domain. Tom’s canvases are his records of these surveys – transcriptions - illuminations of a life filled with humor and honesty, lies and disgust, indulgences of the mind, the flesh, tempered through quiet meditations on self, society and the search for purity.
Thomas Billings began his formal career as painter and printmaker while convalescing after a life-threatening head injury in 1982. His apprenticeships with Sam Rosby, Bill Foust and John Knudson at the Harper Community College, outside of Chicago introduced Tom to the formal processes of lithography, etching, silk-screening, and other printmaking methods. The young artist pursued a directive to master the formal and academic aspects of printmaking while challenging the very parameters and legitimacy of those processes as they became familiar to him. Appropriation, transformation, simplification and saturation of iconic imagery became the immediate and powerful language that is now the hallmark of Billing’s artwork.
The use of written language, printed matter, and simple symbols merge easily on Tom’s canvases, often discarded or recycled artifacts themselves “from failures of other people’s lives”. These elements are taunting tools provided for viewers as a means of decipher Billings’ landscape of emotional alchemy, and the iconographic language he has developed as a means of describing the survey of his territory. They are small notions; comic, cryptic, ambiguous and poetic pointers, seemingly abandoned, or simply forgotten amid the bluster of colorful picture planes filled with vibrant archetypal images of women, animals, mythological figures, and impossible landscapes.
For the careful viewer it becomes quickly and joyfully apparent that the pointers themselves require careful consideration. What appears at first to be deceptively simple and innocent markings on canvas are instead masterful alchemic transformations themselves. How could it be otherwise? The meaning, the method, and the appearance of these seemingly simple pointers rarely look like anything more than the crude and often rude doodles penned in the margins of an elementary school notebook or scrawled in the toilet stall of barroom.
This is where the past and present are drawn together, time flattens out, and history loses its linearity. The artist frees himself from the structure and burden of age. He defiantly unfastens himself from the withering disillusions associated with responsibility and false maturity, where all too often, innocence is replaced by guilt, childishness is lost to pragmatism, dreams are reduced to expectations, and fantasies are nothing more than lies. Billings creates his artwork tethered to no such flawed commitments - his provocative translation of the world around him transcends the arbitrary and fashionable limitations of common culture.
Contradictions, distortions, and oversimplifications of image and concept appear to abound in Billing’s work. “Object simplification is not an attempt to be visionary in any way; it is only the truth, without pretense. I don’t think about it and I don’t care what anyone thinks. I am flawed, the truth is flawed. If I tried to do this I couldn’t do this.”
And yet embedded in every canvas there is a daring, but masterful combination and formal application of painting principles that include repetition, variation, balance, transition and opposition. There are studied and significantly personal translations of formal elements such as line, color, texture and value.
The printing processes, the paint strokes, and the colorful palates appear at first glance to be simplistic, naïve - flawed to the point where any viewer would drop their guard just long enough to be drawn into Mr. Billings’ territory. By then it’s too late to leave unchanged.
“My Mom was a professor of painting, my father was in advertising”. The form and style of Tom Billings’ work carries the legacy of this fact to rich reward. Harsh one liners pose as moral lessons, brightly colored harlots, biker chicks, harpies and Lilith in a thousand disguises describe a delicate pattern of virtue and tolerance.
The artist’s ability to remove himself from the burden of social responsibility can be both hilariously playful and dreadfully threatening. The artwork does not allow itself to distinguish what is painful and what is pleasurable. What at first brings a light smile may suddenly deliver a painful blow, and images that appear dark or lurid have a habit of quickly transforming into brutally honest meditations on virtue.
The portrait of a young girl wearing pigtails with her fingers gently pressed into the corners of her mouth should be, wants to be a tender moment, but instead is a terrifying vision of anxiety and dread. This is a portrait of Tom’s daughter, Madeleine, painted by the artist the day he and his wife separated.
“I loved you and then you died” is a canvas that delivers a heart-wrenching image of a mangy dog, riddled with arthritis and sores, with the titled scrawled across the face of the canvas for all to view. This work was executed after the death of a beloved pet, but is not actually a painting of that beloved pet. It is another animal, another’s beloved pet, and one that is not dead. And the statement, the declaration of love and loss is neither about the dead dog nor the live dog, but about the death of a relationship between two people. There is nothing to suggest any of this in the simple and seemingly crudely painted portrait of the animal. This is a work that should certainly inspire tears, but more often elicits laughter, alternately anxious and joyful. It is the powerful sense of candid truth that brings on such emotion, but it is also the idea that in this crude rendering, there is symbol inside of symbol inside of symbol.
“Feedback is important, dialogue is important – being a cheap voyeur... for me, that’s a payoff.”
Challenge and confrontation are blended into the layers of paint on every canvas. Drawn in and with guard dropped the Billings territory begins to shift and transform. And while Billings finds payoff in confrontation, it is that very confrontation that offers payoff to the viewer - the thrilling realization that we are somehow not at all safe in front of one of these canvases. We take false comfort in the fact that every canvas is a personal, historical illumination, and will mistakenly assume that we are immune to the folly of the artist’s translation and perception of events in the past of his own life. But once engaged it becomes fantastically clear that every canvas is a living landscape filled with very real ghosts and demons, angels and martyrs. These entities have been given form by the hand of the artist but the responsibility for breathing life into them rests on the viewer. Erotic notions, bad behavior, romantic challenges and heroic feats; the significance and aspects of these changelings are inextricably dependant on the viewer’s psyche. We are responsible and at the same time blameless for what is taking place on each and every canvas. For the daring viewer, this psychological alchemy produces rich rewards. Billings appropriates and transforms the iconography of mass media, history, and religion. By doing so, he questions the tools we use to understand ourselves, our culture, and the world.
A host of highly developed characters and icons make regular appearances in varied candy-coated guises – Mr. Happy, The Horny Dog, The Mermaid, The Cowboy, The Boxer, lure us in to smiles, reverie – all draw up our own archetypal references of innocence and aspiration. We remember these things and by remembering become invested in the artist’s canvases just moments before realizing that these icons are cleverly handcuffed to desire and judgment. With one smile or sneer or laugh, we find ourselves complicit in a moral and emotional heist. Billings has turned a canvas into a getaway car and as viewers we are driving, aiding and abetting, speeding away from predictable safety.
Mr. Happy may suddenly transform into a head bursting with sexual frenzy. The Horny Dog is, upon closer scrutiny, smiling and drooling for many good reasons. The Cowboy of our childhood dreams is suddenly dissected, scrawnier than we remembered, and stuck in time, hopelessly unable to take action, with his hand on his gun, waiting to draw. And of course, there is the Sexpot - long-legged, high-heeled, wet-lipped wearing little but an invitation to pleasure surrounded by a corona of Master Locks, with a small set of visual instructions that can only leave you wondering; who here is the master, and who is the slave?
And from canvas to canvas we find ourselves side by side with the rest of the cast of evolving characters, swimming, shooting and punching our way through ominous trials of glory and doubt.
Every Tom Billings canvas is a ticket to a tumultuous journey through the trials of a life viewed and recorded with daring honesty, wry humor and intelligent musings. The works, collectively, offer an animated adventure hosted by the artist and driven by the collective spirit of those who view it. The experience is one of discovery, fueled by a masterful visual language, a dream of ideal truth and the promise of sincerity.