Several years after I moved to the Cincinnati area in 1992, a friend took me to an art gallery near my house where I saw a work on paper by Tom Towhey. It was part of a series, the last one available for purchase. I was instinctively drawn to the subtle shades of brown that surrounded a mysterious, somewhat frightening, face.
Acquiring this work was my introduction to Tom Towhey. Over the years, visitors to my house have seen many things in that face: the devil, a clown, a Renaissance lord. For me, the work contains the essential elements of Tom’s particular genius as a painter: seductively beautiful use of color, small notes of discord appearing in the midst of a beguiling, childlike vision of the world, the primacy of feeling over meaning.
In the fifteen years that I have followed Tom’s career I have been impressed by his refusal to confine his artistic vision to a single style, no matter how successful his works in that style might be. When I first met Tom, he was locally famous for his “tea pot” paintings, wonderfully dense and detailed canvases of playful, often erotic tea pots cavorting in a land of twisting tree trunks and brilliantly colored flowers.
Both a child and a grownup could find delight in these paintings. As I got to know Tom he showed me portfolios of work he had done several years earlier in Santa Fe. These works on paper, elegant washes of harmonious color with sparsely applied figurative elements, are sublime in their beauty.
In more recent years, demonstrating his considerable technical skill as a self-taught artist, Tom has produced a series of abstract oils that literally glow with light shining through translucent organic images. In their delicate beauty, these works contrast with other abstracts painted in rich reds, yellows, blues, and greens so bold the canvases seem to come off the walls when they are hung.
Just as I was getting used to Tom’s abstract paintings, he started to work in a new style, possibly initiated by an invitation to produce a large work for an exhibition celebrating the bicentennial of Charles Darwin. These nature paintings are filled with animals, in their graceful shapes, expressive faces, and innocent postures seen through the eyes of a child. The settings appear natural but, upon closer examination, we see this is the wild, overgrown Garden of Eden that we imagine existed before the fall of man.
Tom’s depiction of nature is both wondrous and slightly scary, which keeps it from ever becoming sentimental. In these paintings he comes closer than in any of his other work to a statement of meaning. His concern for a natural world in jeopardy is continued in his most recent work: haunting paintings of magnificent—but somehow sorrowful—animals lingering in empty architectural settings or encountering toy-like trains and planes. These animals seem not so much abandoned as free to roam in a world no longer populated by humans.
Tom Towhey, in the midst of a career that has never stopped developing, has created a body of work that is technically accomplished, aesthetically beautiful, and always slightly perplexing to encounter. I sense his being is in his paintings, and I feel privileged to know him as a man and artist.
“Evidence of Liquid Lammas: New Paintings by Thomas Hieronymus Towhey” will open at Muse Gallery in Columbus, Ohio, on May 23, 2015. Opening reception from 6:00 to 8:00 PM. Muse Gallery is located at 190 E. Whittier Street, Columbus, Ohio. 614-565-0314. www.musegallery.com.