In the Studio: Richard Thomas Scott
There seems to be two approaches that artists can take when faced with world events or societal injustices that leave them disenfranchised and disheartened: they can create awareness by asking the tough questions through provocative and sometimes controversial imagery; or they can create an alternate visual world, one of beauty and serenity, where viewers can find escape and respite. Richard Thomas Scott has chosen the former, and a recent visit to his Hudson, New York, studio revealed that he is bravely exploring bigger topics in larger-scale formats than he ever has before—and doing so with a deep concern and conviction for the headline-making issues of our time.
Scott’s current house and studio is located about two hours north of Manhattan in the historic Hudson Valley, a stone’s throw away from Frederic Edwin Church’s Olana estate and the studio of Thomas Cole. This location—like the suburbs of Pennsylvania—seems to be another hot spot for the many artists emigrating out of Brooklyn and other boroughs to find more land, space and natural surroundings for their studio practices. Nearby Hudson Valley artist-neighbors include Brad Kunkle, John Morra, Kiki Smith, Martin Wittfooth and more, and there are potential plans in the works for art residencies, workshops and other events in the area.
On a late-September morning, we sat down for a conversation in Scott’s studio and spent the day discussing many thoughts and ideas—so many, in fact, that I thought this studio visit would be best honored through a Q+A format, so Scott’s sentiments on his art could be shared fully in his own words. Before we jumped into the artist’s recent series and the large painting in progress on the easel, we rewound the tape to around 2009—when he was leaving New York City to study with Odd Nerdrum—and worked our way through the training, transitions and experiences that led to the work he is doing now.
AM: What was going on in your life and art when you decided to write to Odd Nerdrum and ask to study with him?
RTS: In 2007, I graduated from The New York Academy of Art and spent the next two years working in Jeff Koons’ studio. I was living in Bay Ridge at the time and commuting two hours every day, and then working in the studio anywhere from 40 to 60 hours a week. If he was preparing for an exhibition, I would paint about 90 hours a week. Right as I was beginning to burn out, the financial crisis hit, so I thought it was a good time to make my exit. I wrote a letter to Odd Nerdrum in Norway asking if I could come study with him and was shocked when he said yes. After studying with him for six weeks, we really clicked. I told him I wanted to get out of Manhattan for a while and just paint, and he said that he actually just bought a place in the suburbs of Paris and I could stay there until I got on my feet. So I went to Paris for what was supposed to be a short while, but I ended up staying three years. Odd would go back and forth between Norway and Paris—on average he was in Paris a week and a half every month. I ended up looking after the house and organizing and managing the other artists who came. When I was studying with him in Norway, I learned a lot about the foundation of his technique and process. Having him there only sporadically in Paris allowed me to take what I had learned and build on it by adding my own experiences. When he came back, he would critique my work and advise me, and the whole process worked out really well.
AM: I know that Nerdrum ended up being a significant influence in your training and in your life, as he has been for many artists. What is it about him, in your opinion, that makes students seek him for teaching and guidance?
RTS: First, I think it’s his ability as an artist. He’s one of the best painters of this generation, and it seems obvious to say he is brilliant. That aside, he also has a certain magnetism. It’s hard to put into words, but he has an intuition and understanding about people instinctually—not only with their art but also with their lives and what is going on internally. He has a way of finding what’s most important to you as student and a person and speaking to you on that level. I will tell you a story that explains it more fully, as it is something I will never forget.
I was modeling for him for one of his paintings over the course of several weeks. One morning I woke up and checked my email to find out my grandfather died, whom I was very close to. He was my namesake, and I spent a lot of time with him as a child. He was the first person to encourage my art—no one else in my family did; they didn’t understand what I was doing or why. Losing him was quite a blow. I remember going into model for Odd that morning, and I didn’t say a word about my grandfather, I just took my pose. He started painting and suddenly stopped. Looking me right in the eye, he said, “It’s very sad when we lose people. I have lived to the age when most of the people who were important to me are now gone. The pain never goes away, but it does get easier.” And then he just went back to painting. I was floored. How could he possibly have known what had happened? He had this way of sensing what was going on, and he was very supportive and understanding for months after that.
AM: I have noticed that, stylistically and even sometimes subject-wise, the work of some of Nerdrum’s students have an identifiable similarity. Do you think it’s inauthentic for an artist’s work to carry the same weight and color of his or her teacher’s without having actually gone through the same struggles and life experiences that he did?
RTS: Philosophically and personally, I don’t have a problem with it. I don’t think people should strive for originality, per se. I think that’s kind of a red herring. In terms of authenticity, in order to be the best you can be, you have to be authentic to yourself. You can’t authentically be someone else, but you can authentically be similar to someone else. The challenge in being a student is that in order to get the most from the teacher or school, you have to do everything exactly as you’re being taught while still maintaining your own identity. I went through a phase where I did have to copy everything Odd was doing exactly. Eventually, though, I followed my own process and evolution. That isn’t to criticize anyone who is really close to him stylistically—I think the difficulty comes in seeing the difference between what you love so much about his work and what you love about your own work and focusing on that.
AM: After spending three years in Paris, you came back to New York. What was the reentry into the American art scene like for you?
RTS: I needed to reconnect back in New York for business. When I left New York in 2009 for Paris, I was nonexistent; no one knew who I was. But I had been developing an Internet presence while in Paris, and had won the Saatchi Art online competition while I was there. When I came back and went to an opening at Forum Gallery, several people who had seen my name and paintings online introduced themselves to me and said they had been following me on Facebook and had heard about the competition. Robert Fishko, the director of Forum, came over to shake my hand and congratulate me on the competition. It was such a shock; I never would have imagined that these people knew who I was. That was at the beginning of the social-media curve, when people were just starting to use Facebook to get their art seen internationally. That moment made me realize just how powerful a vehicle the online world can be for artists. After graduating from the NYA, I learned pretty early on that the people who were succeeding had a network and a lot of connections in New York. I didn’t have that; I was just some kid from Georgia. So I knew I needed to build that for myself, and I initially did that almost entirely through the Internet.
AM: A lot of your paintings from that time were full of sorrow and angst. That season led to your current series: strong social commentaries on war, gun violence, race relations, etc. Were these ideas that you always wanted to explore, or was it certain experiences or current events that triggered them?
RTS: It’s hard for me to talk about my work without also mentioning some of the dark and stressful things that have happened in my life. I consider myself an optimistic person, and I am grateful that I now have joy. I am also relatively calm and do not like conflict. But I have gone through some extremely difficult experiences. And, in many ways, I have to do these types of paintings [he pointed to his Atlas self-portrait on the wall, painted during a time he had experienced several major successive losses] to get that out and maintain any level of joy and optimism in my life. When that dark-painting period ended, though, it ended a phase when I was making paintings just about myself. I realized I wanted to make paintings about other people and our society at large.
Regarding the Civil War series and gun-violence paintings, these concepts hit close to home. I grew up in a suburban town just outside of Atlanta with a lot of racial tension and witnessed several race riots. I experienced a school shooting firsthand when I was in high school. The shooter held a gun to my head, looked me in the eye, and then decided to move onto someone else. So I’m not just some outsider feigning empathy for what has happened in our country or what is happening right now. I have been watching this boil underground for a long time, and now that it’s erupting, I can no longer stay silent about it. I’m not a politician, I’m not a journalist—but I am a painter. I can unearth those painful things in my past that I had been hiding from and didn’t want to look at and maybe use them to investigate these societal issues and injustices. Perhaps I can offer some perspective or comfort or create a little understanding about the type of culture that allows this to take place. I don’t presume to have any answers, but if I can at least ask the right questions that help people better understand the problems and work to find solutions, I will feel I have succeeded.
AM: What type of conceptual preparation did you do leading up to creating these current narrative paintings?
RTS: When I began contemplating how I could ever begin to tackle such tremendous issues, I started doing a lot of reading and research. I really believe at the root of all of this is a question of identity: Individual identity. National identity. Human identity. I started investigating the origins of that identity and exactly when those cultural divides and wounds occurred in our society. My next question was, why haven’t they healed yet? I thought maybe if we can understand where these identity issues broke down, we can start building bridges to try to connect to each other again. So then I started going back in time, reading a lot of books on the Civil War, race relations, our national identity and the effect that all of that has on culture today. I started listening to history podcasts—I came to understand so many parallels between what’s happening today and what happened then. It’s the age-old conflict of what America was, what people think it should be, and where it’s headed in the future.
For the issue of school shootings, I had to address gun violence as a whole in the United States. You can’t just isolate it to schools—the roots go much deeper than that. That’s why it’s so difficult to solve. I had a distinct dream during this time that helped me understand the cyclical nature and consequences of these issues. It was about six months after the Sandy Hook shooting, and I was greatly troubled by what had happened. One night I dreamt of the school shooting that I experienced in high school, but in the dream all of us were dressed in Civil War uniforms. (In the Civil War, a lot of the soldiers actually were teenagers. So many young men died early on and then teenagers were drafted.) It was an actual battle scene in the high school, we were all fighting one another with guns. I remember waking up in a cold sweat and knowing that was it—that was the heart of what I wanted to understand and get to in these paintings. It didn’t know why, I just felt somehow it was related.
AM: I understand that you participated in a Civil War reenactment before doing some of these paintings. What specifically did you learn from that experience?
RTS: I started working on a Civil War battle scene, and I realized how much I didn’t know. Even after investigating, reading numerous books, reaching out to scholars, listening to podcasts, I knew I needed to get closer. I couldn’t understand what it is like to be in a battle unless I was in one. So the closest I could possibly get was a Civil War reenactment in Richmond, Virginia. I enlisted as a Union solder and instead of shooting with a gun, I shot with my camera to get inspiration for the paintings. Coming from the South, I had a lot of assumptions about the people who were playing Confederate soldiers. Why would you do that? I made assumptions that were largely unfair. I was biased, but I tried to open my mind to what this battle was really all about and learn as much as I could.
The whole experience was a lot deeper than I thought it was going to be, and I learned more than I expected to. I assumed we would reenact a battle, march across a field and call it a day. That’s not what happened at all. I was embedded with the African American regiment from Massachusetts. At this particular battle, they had the largest number of African American soldiers of any soldiers in the Civil War. I decided I wanted to be with them to get their perspective. There was this whole narrative we were following, and we each had a character to play: this person charged at this point, this person died here, this person retreated. I had a hotel room booked for that night, but I decided instead to camp out with the soldiers so I could spend time with them and really listen to their stories. The next morning we improvised a battle at sunrise. The sight of this battle was surreal: the sunrise was streaking across the horizon right above the trees, and the whole battlefield was covered in musket fog and smoke. The soldiers looked like ghosts running across the field—all you saw were silhouettes and these frequent flashes from their muskets that looked like huge fireflies: it was horrifying and sublime at the same time. What I saw in the sky/sunrise that morning ended up becoming the backgrounds for several of the paintings in the Civil War series.
AM: I see that you are in the middle of mapping out your next large-scale painting and have already made a composite for the composition as a visual guide. Can you tell us what this will be about?
RTS: This painting is about violence in American culture. In light of the recent shootings, especially what happened in Charleston and Dallas, I wanted to investigate the root of gun violence in our country, the African American experience and the cultural foundation that influences their experience today. There are some systemic problems in our society that perpetuate a feedback loop that makes it very difficult for African Americans to make different decisions and change the course of their lives. As an example, growing up in Georgia, I had some friends who did some really stupid things, including drugs. If they’d gotten caught, they would have had a couple of chances. If they had been African American and gotten caught, they wouldn’t have had another chance. They would be integrated into the system: you’re a criminal, then it goes on your record, and then you can’t get a job, then you end up struggling or in poverty: it’s a cycle.
AM: In the composite—which is a compilation of images you put together in Photoshop to get the idea down before you start painting it large-scale—there are five different people. Who are they, and what do they represent?
RTS: Everyone is a representation of the major players in the cycle of African American violence. All the way to left is a black Dutch slave (slaves in that time were able to become land owners and integrate into society), and to his left is an African American slave, with his hands tied. To his left is a statue from the Hellenistic period because I wanted to reference the idea of democracy. There was a brief period after the Civil War and the abolition of slavery that African Americans were allowed to run for office, and I wanted to represent that equality, freedom, and promise. The figure to his left is a slave master, pulling the black man toward the future, ironically toward the Statue of Liberty. And the last figure is the young black man today, in a prison suit, taking the same posture as the slave from the beginning of the painting. The scene takes place at a time that can either be sunrise or sunset: representing a sense of beginning and ending and the cycle of life.
AM: I am assuming your position is one of empathy for those stuck in a cycle they didn’t create and can’t break free from?
RTS: Yes. It is one of empathy and also concern for where we are and how we got here. I think these kinds of deep divisions in our cultural identity that we’re experiencing now go way back to other wounds and in many ways originate in the Civil War. You can’t really understand America without understanding the Civil War and the ramifications that continue to echo today. But I also have hope that collectively we can solve this. Humanity has achieved a lot of amazing things, and we have actually come quite far in the last 150 years. My hope is to put together a museum exhibition once I have about 12 of these paintings done (each one takes a year or more to complete) because I believe these paintings are meant to be seen contextually and understood as a whole. I’d also like to have some presentations in conjunction with the exhibition to encourage dialogue and conversation.
AM: I have heard about the “Post-Contemporary” movement that you and a few other artists have started. I’m curious to hear what this is about in your own words.
RTS: My contribution to this is merely stumbling across the word “post-contemporary”—I first discovered it from the writings of Holocaust survivor and poet Primo Levi—and believing it was the right word for what we were discussing at the time. I gave a talk at TRAC in 2013, and after returning home I was thinking a lot about definitions. We were all asking ourselves: what do we call what we’re doing? Figurative? Realism? Contemporary Realism? Traditional? Shortly after this I happened to be at the New Britain Museum of American Art with Graydon Parrish, Douglas Hyland [Director of the New Britain Museum] and Brandon Kralik, and I started telling them about this term I had come across and my thoughts about it. The phrase resonated with them as well. Douglas was explaining how the New Britain Museum is interested in following the progression of American art, all the way through to what the realist artists of our time are doing. So they wanted to use this term “post-contemporary” to address that part of their collection. Graydon then started the Post-Contemporary page on Facebook. He’s the one who really championed it. I have put some effort in to trying to clarify, but he has been by far the most vocal.
AM: Are you all in agreement on the definitions of “Contemporary” and “Post-Contemporary” and on what the movement stands for?
RTS: We largely agree on the definition of contemporary, although there is a slight difference of opinion on the sentiments toward it. I get the impression that Graydon sees contemporary art as more or less wrong—and I see it simply as a path of philosophical inquiry that has come to an end. I think the trajectory of art as it has moved from the late nineteenth century into the twentieth century, from a technical standpoint, has given us some useful information and advancements. The comprehensive color theory from Albers and Rothko, for instance, are still important to me as an artist. I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Graydon wants to more or less return to the nineteenth century. I love what he is doing, but I don’t think we should exclusively return to that aesthetic and approach. Still, we share a lot of similar ideas. With anything like this you’re going to have different perspectives.
AM: So what is Post-Contemporary as you see it or define it?
RTS: The trajectory of philosophy in art for most of the twentieth century was to take things apart to understand them and get to their essence—to deconstruct. The difficulty I have with that is that from around 1917 on, it became rather repetitive, and the same questions have been asked over and over. When the deconstructive philosophy of modernism started moving into post-modernism and eventually into relativism, that’s when things fell apart in my opinion: art was philosophically deconstructing and deconstructing until there was nothing left but a blank canvas or an object. There’s no beauty, there’s no truth. I think it led to a kind of cultural atheism. That leap to “there’s nothing, art is whatever I say it is,” instead of cultural agnosticism, seems rather pessimistic to me. Post-Contemporary then is about reconstructing. I feel we’re at a point now where we can pick up those pieces and put them back together in a way that makes sense to humanity. Humans need meaning. We can leave the prejudices in the past and take what works. For me that is what post-contemporary is trying to do.
AM: Speaking of the “Contemporary” (I’m now referring to Contemporary as defined by the top tier of today’s art market, what sells in the “Contemporary Art” categories of major auction houses and through most galleries in Chelsea), I’m curious about your experience working in Jeff Koons’ studio. First, why do you think he employs mostly classically trained artists to assist in the production of his work? Second, even though your approach to art is vastly different, was there anything of value you learned from observing him as an artist and businessman?
RTS: I think he hires classically trained artists because it’s a matter of expediency. Those with the extensive training and skill can follow the formula and take direction clearly. He’s also promoting a luxury item, and it’s part of the packaging and branding to have the art manufactured by hand by skilled artists/artisans. The whole experience of working in his studio was actually interesting—I was straight out of art school and it can be a hard transition to go from that kind of environment to painting alone in a studio all day. So this job allowed me to not only support myself but also be a part of a collegial community with almost a hundred other artists, most of whom were from The School of Visual Arts, The New York Academy, or The Florence Academy of Art. Because we were in Chelsea, I would go to a different gallery every day during my lunch break. I saw a lot of art, and it really challenged me to reassess my own assumptions about what art is and what it should be. It allowed me to take the temperature of the art world at that time. Yes, I did learn from him. I would listen to him talk to collectors or Larry Gagosian or the media, and I noticed that he was always very prepared, polished and professional. He had a message and a brand that he had to uphold, and he was very good at business and at maintaining control of his production and public relations.
AM: You’ve had a few older men in your life who have passed important learning and wisdom to you in one way or another. What is the best advice you were ever given, and how does it apply to your art?
RTS: The best advice I was ever given was from my grandfather. It was actually in a dream, on the night that he passed away. The night before I awoke in Paris to find the email from my mother saying that he had passed, I had a vivid dream of him. I was lying in bed, and I remember it was just at dawn. There was a little bit of light coming through the window, which had long, sheer curtains that were blowing in the wind. I could smell his Old Spice aftershave, and I looked over and he was standing there. I said, “What are you doing here, how did you get here?” And he said, “I don’t have a lot of time, but I have to say this to you: I see in you the same kind of ambition I had for myself in life. I always wanted to save the world and change things, but I realized far too late that you can’t save the world. No matter how smart you are, how hard you try, how much talent you have. But you can save those you love. That’s the only way you can save the world.” I woke up just at dawn and saw the curtains blowing just the way they did in the dream. And then I read my mother’s email saying he had passed. A few years later, I believe what he said to me was the catalyst for deciding to focus on others with my art instead of just myself, and also making relationships more of a priority in my life. I don’t have a family yet like he did, but I can apply what he said by taking the concern and care I have for what is happening in the world and finding a way to express it in constructive ways through my paintings.