Spotlight Chicago, IL: Tom Torluemke, “Ring around the Rosie”

An Essay on Artist Tom Torluemke

By Kevin Freitas

A pocket full of posies;
Hush! hush! hush! hush!
We’re all tumbled down.

“Though it seems at times as if nothing could rout him out of the inertia in which he is entrenched, it is quite possible that he may one day be shocked into a greater state of awareness. Precept and example seem to have had little effect: basically the civilized man is little different from primitive man. He has not accepted the world, neither has he shown any desire to partake of the reality which invests it. He is still bound to myth and taboo, still the slave of the victim of history, still the enemy of his own brother. The simple, obvious truth, that to accept the world is to transform it, seems utterly beyond his powers of comprehension.”

– Henry Miller, The Hour of Man

“So I’ll tell you what I would like. I would like some bad-acting and wrong-thinking. I would like to see some art that is courageously silly and frivolous, that cannot be construed as anything else. I would like a bunch of twenty-three-old troublemakers to become so enthusiastic, so noisy, and so involved in some stupid, seductive, destructive brand of visual culture that I would feel called upon to rise up in righteous indignation, spewing vitriol, to bemoan the arrogance and self-indulgence of the younger generation and all of its artifacts.”

– Dave Hickey, Frivolity and Unction



And so would I Mr. Hickey…

Hickey and Miller what a pair! A generation or so separates them at birth yet they arrive at the same elegant conclusion. They beg us to awaken to the “obvious truth” that to live fully in this world as a Man or Woman we must, we are obligated, in fact condemned to “transform it.” It is also a responsibility artists must share – otherwise, go out and get a fucking job. You are after all, the perfect example of a contemporary peripatetic global artist. You will survive. Nonetheless, be it for better or worse, we cannot as “civilized man” or “twenty-something” woman continue to ignore this. The result will inevitably be we’re all tumbled down or strip-searched.

I am concerned about this and so is Tom Torluemke it appears. But Torluemke is an artist; society tells us he’s supposed to worry about these things: war, famine, death, and erections. He is after all, the sensitive type.

“The Greeks colored their statues, the Spaniards slaughtered their bulls, The Germans invented Hasenpfeffer, we dream and act impatient, hoping for fame without labor, admiration without a contract, sex with an erection.”

– Larry Rivers and Frank O’Hara, excerpt from How to Proceed in the Arts

However, there are very few artists or memorable works that have actually succeeded in transforming the world if at all (it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try). There are those however, like the cognoscenti and their pocketbooks, who will disagree. Pay them no mind. Those artists who have opened our eyes to the way the world is, and nowadays it ain’t pretty, do so by remaining relevant. Their works mirror society, its culture and politics, and tell us something about its people. An artist’s work is only a snapshot of a particular moment in the continuum, like a photograph, it can only tell us so much. Could the French Revolution been what it was without Jean-Paul Marat and the painter Jacques-Louis David?

Tom Torluemke has been making art for over thirty years and I don’t see him stopping anytime soon. It coincides with his devout belief in the transformative and eye-opening (revelatory) power of art. He does not produce snake-oil. We should be grateful and excited for what he offers and thankful for showing us who we truly are – the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

It Feels Different Each Time

Torluemke transformed my life some twenty-five years ago when I installed a show of his work at the now defunct Steiner Gallery in 1987. I had walked into the gallery a day earlier looking for work. I made a deal with the gallery owner that if he let me hang the next show (for free) and he liked what he saw, he’d hire me. I landed the job and the opportunity to meet Torluemke. A few years later, we would meet again as he walked through the front door of my gallery in Wicker Park looking to exhibit. How could I say no? For our first show in 1990 Tom produced a series of “cut-out” inspired works based on the Seven Deadly Sins which he painted directly onto the support columns of the gallery. Little did I know then, I was in the midst of an artist whose vision would evolve in quality and strength over many more decades. I consider myself lucky to have been part of this.

Many years have since passed; we continue to stay in touch to this day. I am honored as I have always been to work with my friend Tom, and this will never change. I have been reminded on several occasions during which he has witnessed and been a part of, if not in spirit, the many transformations of my gallery (no longer), my many moves and travels (from Chicago to Paris for love), Brussels to start anew, and finally San Diego to get a divorce, that he will never stop making art. His way of saying of course, don’t give up. God bless him.


Crash and Bleed

I have always jokingly responded by saying if he wasn’t going to quit, neither would I. But I am a fool and do not possess the tenacity or strength to carry on. Yet I stubbornly persevere out of the same love and dedication any true artist (like Tom) must possess for his or her craft (if not entirely selfishly) to exist. It took me many years to understand artists who have made it into the annals of art history have done so by making a pact with their selves, at any cost, to sacrifice everything and everybody. Nothing personal, they have to.

Do not harbor any rancor against these artists, they have not duped you or promised anything. There are no commitments made in your honor, and if anything, they have given you a choice. They are free, let them be. Besides, you would grow weary of them if they were bound by your expectations; they would surely wither and die under your care. If you want to join them do so at your own peril. And you will. I understand, you like treating them as whores, you enjoy the titillation and unction an artist’s way of life brings to your cash cache and status, but you still pay so little for their services. I know you are only interested their production, erections and all, spinning straw into gold.

Yves Klein is known to have re-purposed, the French Marxist and theorist, Guy Debord’s, infamous phrase of 1958 “ne travaillez jamais” in which writer Angie Baecker notes, “called on all workers to ‘never work,’ thus rejecting the act by which they subjugated themselves to the abuses of capitalist society.” Klein meant it to mean we must provide the artist the luxury, in short, the time to ponder and daydream without the stress of fiscal responsibilities or work. In other words, time to create. This is what artists need, always.

This is not to say they do not need your help. They are not fools. They are often surrounded by muses of the flesh, of the present day, as they have already fucked the muses of the past – art history would not exist if this were not true. These contemporary muses often come in the form of lovers, wives, girlfriends or other personnages of the male or female persuasion. I know this to be true as I have equally and permissively fallen in love (and been inspired) by countless women while watching their firm round asses bake under a summer sun. Tom is not without his muse either, the keeper-of-his-shit-in-order, his silent angel, “How delicate her feet who shuns the ground, Stepping a-tiptoe on the heads of men.– Homer. Her name is Linda and the only one thus far who has taken center stage permissively and firmly into Tom’s life and work over the years. This should not be underestimated for they are truly one. Pollock had Lee, Keinholz his Nancy, and Christo his lovely Jeanne-Claude. It is fate, do not disrupt it.

If Linda has been a constant factor then so has Tom’s style and imagery, one he has perfected obsessively and incessantly over a lifetime. His imagery is surely recognizable but yet difficult to place in any side-by-side comparison with his artistic peers. His is not a hybrid of styles nor is it truly avant-garde in the sense of something so outlandish as to recall or forget it years later. Tom has stayed the course and has never had the luxury of being a Turner Prize baby. That’s not to say he doesn’t merit it, it’s just not the type of work that fits well within that context. This is Turner’s problem certainly but perhaps Tom could also benefit from a little “stupid, seductive, [and] destructive brand of visual culture.”

I believe it is important to note, and this will be the extent of my criticism, Tom has teased us along with work that is powerful, poignant and contemporaneously relevant (see social as well as political) but it has yet to unify us all. His work is as demonstrative as it is deft; of this he has no equal, I do however wait for the day he will finally pull the lynchpin and it will explode into a seething, climaxing mass of putrid art – ah the better to smell you with, my dear. He owes himself this luxury.

Tom’s work and technique (his method and materials) can be broken down into three loosely defined categories: paper cut-outs and collage, figurative abstraction, and biting political and/or highly sexualized social commentary. In this newest body of work, he has also added several figurative wood sculptures reminiscent of some of George Baselitz’s best works. I should point out Tom’s paintings have remained largely figurative; he is often the focus or main protagonist in these pieces.

I’ve written in the past about Tom’s works on paper, here is an excerpt:

“It’s difficult not to make comparisons to Matisse’s “Découpages” when looking at Torluemke’s paper sculptures, though the similarities quickly dissolve when the work “pops-out” out of the flatness of Matisse’s heritage. “Cutting into color” Matisse was often quoted as saying of his brightly hued gouache cut-outs, “reminds me of the direct carving of the sculptor.” Torluemke has learned this lesson well and has employed it throughout his long and satisfying career. He “cuts” or carves into the picture plane with such deftness and clarity that it makes any seasoned draftsman look amateurish.”

Marie Antoinette

Indeed they still do. I recall some of Tom’s first pop-up books he made. They were at the time investigations of form and color –trying to figure out the mechanics of it all – and were at best, somewhat amateurish. Constructed out of heavy watercolor paper and lavished with thick acrylic paints, they were still amazing, but lacked the preciseness, delicacy, and expertise his current sculptures superbly demonstrate. There is now an authority and assuredness to these works that are unsurpassed by anything I have seen to this day. Works like “Samson” and “Marie Antoinette” certainly appear to be at the height of Tom’s capabilities – how could you get any more refined than that – but are in actuality, the synthesis of a deft hand and clear ideas that only hints at what these paper sculptures will become. Oh lord, I cannot wait. I would love to see some of these works fastened out of metal, larger-than-life or cast in bronze. Frank Stella’s etched magnesium and aluminum sculptures of the 80’s come to mind or even Jeff Koon’s “Popeye” series – but of course, done much better.

The acrylic works are also some of Tom’s most accomplished abstract figurative works to date. Paintings such as, “The Universal Truth, Unknown,” “The Tentative Approach,” “Afraid to Be Outside” or “The Show Off” are prime examples of a mature painter. They can also be very violent, overtly sexual, perverse, funny, frat boyish, erotic as hell, slick, wet, drippy, smelly as in your ass-is-in-the-air kind of way, balls-out, stiff cock while screwing your girlfriend in a Candy Land-esque landscape with all the confidence and paint handling skill and sophisticated compositional savoir-faire that only accomplished painters the likes of DeKooning, David Parks, Howard Hodgkin or William Baziotes posses. They can range from the hilarious “Oh, that tickles” (red lips have never performed so well) to “Ring around the Rosie” – the central and most important work in this exhibit.

Ring around the Rosie


Vaginas and penises abound in Tom’s paintings but you can’t always tell what’s going on or why there is a need for them. They’re hidden, you have to look but this isn’t really the point. Tom’s work is never pornographic. He covers them up, hides them from us and keeps quiet, he doesn’t tell anyone the full story – about “the” incident – perhaps even about the abuse, the rape, the domestic violence – ours, his, someone else’s (imagined or not) it doesn’t matter. It exists unfortunately in our world. Chicago painter Ed Paschke for example, portrays his figures in this awkwardly confident and strangely confrontational way vis-à-vis the spectator; his women, society’s outcasts and all that is weird and strange confront the viewer while he simultaneously decorates them with textured backgrounds, psychedelic colors, cheap red light district theatrics and luscious, sinuous line work all mashed up in this freak show aesthetic. They too are highly sexualized but the work showcases an individual for what he or she is, just a little crazy, but in the end they’re just exotic birds of another feather.

Tom’s work isn’t so blatant which saves it from being too methodic. The quest to find resolution or closure (emotionally) by working through his paintings has as much to do with the technique and “problems” (formal or otherwise) intrinsically tied to its process as it does to the complexity of one’s life, the choices we make, their consequences (for there is always one) and the way we conduct ourselves in the presence of others. To kill, shoot, maim or hurt someone shouldn’t be an option. Tom is a good man with a solid set of values. He understands clearly we might all be original sinners and points this out when necessary with just the right amount of appui . I believe it’s all about keeping his soul safe from harm. Painting gives him the protection he needs and provides him the light to escape the dark. He walks along the precipice just as we do; his goal is to not let himself fall. Redemption plays a major role in Tom’s work; painting for him and for us (because he does it for our pleasure as well) has a redeeming quality, it is sacred, a total immersion, it is a mikveh of sorts. It allows him to rise anew and reborn against another day. Ritual leads to belief which leads to faith which eventually leads to creativity and creation – done over and over. This is why Tom’s work has remained fresh all these years.

But it is not all doom & gloom in Tom’s world, there is also much love and tenderness to be found within, “Ring around the Rosie” is a perfect example of balance and harmony. It is a spectacular piece employing all the versatility and visual power Tom possesses. The central figures are a couple, one is Tom and the other is Linda, they hug with eyes closed as a panorama of vignettes – glimpses I imagine of the trials and tribulations and episodic events of Tom’s life – swirl about them. It is a conglomerate of hope and joy but also of despair, of good and evil.

And there is much to overcome in this painting but also many milestones, consistent benchmarks that have guided Tom throughout his steadfast career. There, just behind Tom’s couple and centrally placed, is a portrait of Tom painting outdoors. Tom and his art represent the pole or “rosie” if you will of his life. It is the bridge between his past, to the left of the picture plane and his present and future to the right. In the foreground a car sits idling; a couple is fighting inside, blood streams down the woman’s cheeks. The exhaust fumes roll up the left side of the painting while a young boy leads an older woman by the hand towards a darkened house. Inside the house there is a man abusing his wife or girlfriend, a child looks on. Upstairs, there is a man clutching another man lying on the floor, a family huddles together. Outside, there is a woman lying on the ground, balled up in a fetal position. The colors used to paint these scenes are dark and murky – lifeless.

To the right of the couple is the totality of Tom’s life to date, in large part due to his creative discipline but also the love and solace he has found in Linda’s world. There is much laughter, dancing, walks along the lake, shopping and yes even fornicating. There is also dinner at the table with Linda’s son, scenes of domesticity and Tom cleaning the gutters, with a palette of colors that are warm and inviting. If Tom as a man, father, and artist is the pole that anchors his being and existence; these events (past and present) are forever tethered to him. He cannot escape, nor can we. There is also the inescapable fact that no matter how much good is done, there will always be those who flee us. A woman floats above the idyllic landscape that Linda and Tom have created; turning it seems toward a darker past. Her arms outstretched reach for something that is not there or leaving behind who she once was – her father’s daughter.

Feminist Gloria Steinem recently said, “It happens to anybody who expresses hope rather than fear” remarking through her own experiences, that most people will listen and be moved to congregate around any individual – President or otherwise – who preaches hope. Tom as a painter does the same thing, his highlighting of the past – sometimes bad things happen – is a way of dealing with, repairing, and letting go of it. He is not so much shaped by a darker past as he is blessed to have the opportunity to control and decide his present fate and future. Surrounded by those individuals who love and preach hope and an artistic spirit that knows no boundaries, his strength lies in their combined unity. This is the most powerful form of art there is. “I neglected nothing.” – Nicolas Poussin

The third category of work Tom produces can be best exemplified in his collage work. Using inexpensive contact-paper, he is able to achieve the same amount of poignant imagery two-dimensionally as he does with the paper cut-outs but with a more heighten and acerbic take on current events both politically and socially. These are whimsical works at first glance, the kitschy patterns of shelving paper does wonders to the appearance of these works until you realize what’s going on. With references to war, 911, and general mayhem in the world, these pieces can be seen more as political venting than anything else. This doesn’t mean they’re weak in content or effect. They are powerful strong works that merit being alongside Tom’s repertoire of poignant imagery.

Bringing You Flowers

With titles like, “The Bodies Pile Up,” “I Was Shocked at the Jumpers” (a sublime collage, perhaps even an artistic tip-of-the-hat to James Rosenquist’s infamous “F-111” painting or to some of Ruth Adler Schnee’s textile pieces) it is difficult not to detect the horror and heartache in Tom’s heart. Other works such as “Many People Cried” and “Crash and Bleed” confirm our suspicions. Picasso painted “Guernica” as a visceral shorthand vocabulary to demonstrate the tragedy of war and innocent lives lost. Its strength, much like the collages Tom produces, lies in its efficiency to depict man’s betrayal of man. Its economy of pictorial language insures like many of the Church’s religious icons, that we do not forget the lesson.

I Was Shocked at the Jumpers


Over the years I’ve never felt the need to categorize Tom Torluemke’s work into a particular school of thought, art practice, – ism (postmodern or otherwise), relational aesthetic, conceptualist conundrum, or community service. How can you define the indefinable? I know Tom, he would not do well in captivity, his artistic spirit is far too large to be contained. Better to be selfishly entertained by this man’s output, his creative tenacity, his spirit. Oh thy young artists today, you would do well to take a closer look at this man and learn from him. There is nothing left to mine from your bellybuttons and simplistic art school gibberish. Just paint, make it your life and your career – “but begin.” And never stop because you know damn well Tom is up ahead and around the corner and he ain’t looking back.

I read the other day a choice morsel by Jerry Saltz while offering advice to a struggling artist by saying, “while others are distracted by the light, you be the heat.” Amen.

Tom Torluemke is that heat and its glowing red-hot. Thank you my friend for all these years.


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