In “Open World” by Simon Tosky, the world is not only open but destabilized. Tosky renders inner life in bright colors, with sparse figures that are both vivid and ghostly in the new Palmer gallery show. It’s an open world, but also a subconscious realm where sight and sound elude our grasp.
Tosky renders figures hidden behind masks or underneath bright colors. There are faces, but they are somehow inhuman, fragmented. The figures are only partially apparent, with some semblance of reality through natural elements, but the composition pays the most attention to the faces. Yet, it’s not really faces we’re meant to look at, but the heart or the brain or wherever it is that makes us who we are.
Tosky said his work comes from a place of self portraiture, though not the external visuals of a face or person. Instead, it’s a self-portrait of the interior. “I think of it as a self portrait of whatever I’m thinking about at that specific time when I made them,” he explained, in an in-person conversation.
These portraits contain full color and expressive energy. Starkly bold reds and blues take up huge swaths of the canvas. Tosky uses decisive brush strokes to make it easier to see how the paint moves around until it finds where it belongs. Tosky’s layering creates an anticipation that anything could shift at any moment. Any figure could fall from prominence, and any moment of stillness could succumb to a new mark or opposing color.
“The message of [these paintings] is [that] the world is chaotic and [I’m] trying to distill it into something a little more peaceful,” he said. This word, “peaceful,” is curious in comparison to the work, which brims with contradictions and complexities. It’s in the process of going outside of mundane everyday reality and entering into this impossibly colorful imaginary realm that Tosky’s work offers peace.
“A lot of times things suck but I’m trying to have a good time,” Tosky said. This search for consolation or joy arises in his paintings, which exhale some underlying necessity to create. Tosky likened his process to a daydream: “A lot of the paintings are skirting on an alternate reality type vibe.”
Maybe the peacefulness Tosky described comes from this element of obscuring, or perhaps complicating, feelings. There’s a multiplicity to each of the figures in his work. First you’ll see a smile, but then notice that it’s rubbed off, deformed. Maybe it’s symbolizing sadness then? Or grief? Or maybe it’s all of them. A big puddle of happy and sad and too confused to tell.
If Tosky’s process is peaceful, maybe it’s the kind of peace that comes from acceptance. The kind of peace where you stop looking for a stable, closed world of order and find serenity in disorder. Tosky’s paintings convey that, at least to me. A kind of resolution that the world is a whole spectrum—good and bad.
I asked Tosky about the kinds of feelings these paintings evoke. “I feel like they kind of hit upon all the feelings a little bit,” he responded. While initially unsatisfying, this answer makes the most sense for these paintings. Their world is not just “open,” but contradictory, full, charged.
That all of these paintings came together this year for this gallery is something slightly magical. Tosky originally planned to showcase his work in Spring 2020, but COVID delayed the exhibit. Tosky said he is happier showing his work now instead of then, as his paintings have seen a step up in their development. “This is the most complete it’s felt, at least to myself,” he said.
Despite the exhibit’s delay, Tosky ultimately completed all of the exhibition pieces this year, creating a sense of cohesion throughout the gallery. He started most of the paintings two or three years ago, though often revisited and re-rendered them. A feeling of longevity lingers in the work, as if the paintings used their given space to shift and transform the same way Tosky did. This process also allows for layering, erasing and pushing paint around.
Ed Cheetham, Director of the Palmer Gallery, said the gallery can provide space for artists who haven’t had much work on display. I asked him what it meant that the gallery returned to its place as an arts space, after serving as the school store last year. “It just affirms that art still has a place,” he answered. “I think we all realized that in the pandemic… it’s still vital to have an art space and share it with people.”
The paintings reflect the time spent on them, though they also look quick, like Tosky jotted down a mark because he had to get it down before it left his head. Tosky mentioned this need to preserve feeling. “That’s why I like painting. You can’t remember what exactly you were thinking about, but you kinda remember the feeling of it,” he said.
Tosky’s work will be up in the gallery until November 19.