Caza Sikes is currently presenting a 30-piece retrospective of works by prominent Cincinnati artist Tom Towhey. The show spans the last 40 years of his appealing and unique work. It is a vibrant show, filled with a broad range of new and older borrowed pieces, beginning with images for Gibson Greetings, Inc., a Cincinnati based card company, up to the present day.

The show is not presented in a sequenced fashion. The pieces are appropriately mixed and primarily shown together by style. Towhey works in three general genres: figurative, landscape, and abstract, each one somehow touching and influencing the others. Towhey is a very prolific artist, constantly generating new works and finding new and innovative approaches to his vision. At the same time, this retrospective shows he continually circles back to his older ideas as he adds to his oeuvre of newer pieces. His subject matter can vary, but older subjects and themes always seem to find a way of reappearing. He is a restless artist always seeking out new approaches though ultimately his vision, style and work are consistent.

The exhibition begins outside the gallery where the walls are surrounded by several of his pieces including a google-eyed self-portrait from 2011.

Entering the show’s main gallery space, found to the left are two earlier paintings. Unlike most of the other work here, these are framed and are dark, warm, soft and almost gauzy landscapes reminiscent of Barbizon School paintings. Trees, as seen in “Red Oak Pass”, are the prominent subject matter, but the distorted gnarly limbs and trunks seem to signal the beginning of an overtly organic style found in later works. These two works are quite lush with many transparently glazed layers, as elements smoothly flow one to the next. This is a characteristic style Towhey has used repeatedly through the years. Close by are two other smaller and newer landscapes that provide a somewhat peaceful entry to the gallery. This might just be the proverbial calm before the storm. Upon turning right, you move into a space full of imaginative, strong and colorful pieces.

Red Oak Pass, 1997, 24 by 24 in. Oil on canvas

Towhey has a unique surrealistic style. The paintings’ shapes may be round or rectangular and are generally frameless, often large in scale. Those pieces that are figurative seem to have a central tableau generally consisting of a small number of decidedly atypical characters, frozen together in a dreamlike, surreal landscape.

The figures appear to be a snapshot of a pivotal moment in time, and are always surrounded by a cast of bizarre characters and contorted visual elements, all vigorously jostling for attention. They each grab you as you scan the painting but never quite hold you completely; as you focus on one thing, another nearby element quickly catches your eye. This wild collection of images becomes a metaphor for distraction, a thought-filled space, all finely balanced, but chaotic and disruptive. A viewer can easily be absorbed and lost in this eye-filling experience. The work is full of visual complexity, but ultimately the composition is always sound and balanced.

Some pieces appear to be autobiographical, the figures and surrounding images suggesting a moment in the artist’s life. Towhey is somehow a part of the subject matter and the surrounding frenzied scene lends to the perceived complexity of his situation. These peripheral images are perhaps sly visual symbols of things or persons who surround him in real life.

“Don’t Waste My Time” from 1989 is a prime example. Towhey himself becomes a deranged central character standing on a ladder, sawing a grandfather’s clock in half. He steadies himself by holding onto the bright red drapes while the background swims with images reminiscent of his past: his old car, wall sconces, a colorfully dressed figure watching him from below is holding a flower.

Bumfuzzle Circus, 2011, 48 by 72 in. Oil on canvas

In the later and more complex 2011 painting, “Bumfuzzle Circus” Towhey is featured this time as a small background figure, paintbrush in his mouth floating behind a red-haired clown. The tilted horizon in the far background is disorienting. Multiple bizarre faces, bodies, and animals fly out toward you, this includes a teapot, one of his oft-used metaphoric elements. Finally, interwoven into the background is a banner proclaiming Bumfuzzle Circus. The canvas presents a spectacle; each jumbled element translates into a symbol waiting to be deciphered.

Pumpernickel Tea, 2006, 18 in. diameter, Oil on canvas

Some of the more figurative works appear to be concerned with issues important to Towhey. “Bastards and Bitches” from 2000 deals with the animal trade. Two large monster-like figures converse in a colorful landscape surrounded by pet animals. A more recent 2021 painting “Under the Gizmo Tree” shows a priest hiding behind a wedding couple in a jungle surrounded by bizarre humanoid figures, many with animal faces. Flying saucers hover in the background sky. Together they all present a dysfunctional world that raises many more questions than it answers.

Witty and absurd sculptures on pedestals surround you in the gallery. A swiss cheese airplane, a violin with doorknob tuning pegs, a singer standing with a microphone, and of course, a teapot. Almost like large toys, the scale of these pieces fit well with the surrounding works. Seen collectively with the wall-hanging pieces, the sculptures pull you in and make you feel as you may somehow be a part of the surreal scenery.

Swiss Cheese Airline, 2016, 22 by 14 by 12 in. Mixed Media

Towhey’s more abstract works reflect his organic and surreal style. Colors, and sometimes words swirl and twist around each other melding from one thing to the next, much like the figures and plant imagery found in his other pieces. These works are easily understood as representations of the natural forms which he uses as a stylistic point of departure. In these and all his works, the finished product is a representation of his process. He begins work and sees where the process will take him and the artwork. The unconscious is his workspace and playground.

Tortoise Contortion, 2010, 30 by 30 in. Oil on Canvas

The scope of this retrospective is much broader than can be adequately covered here. That said, it is very well worth a visit. Plan to spend some time there; in this 30 piece exhibit there is much to see, consider and absorb. The show runs through April 9th.

–Dana A. Tindall

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