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Embracing Emotion : ‘Nosegays and Knuckle Sandwiches’ Retrospective Reveals How Thomas Woodruff Makes an Impact

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If the sidewalks around here offer a lot to see in the way of exotic tattoos, the show only gets better inside a red brick building on Main Street.

Ornate tattoos figure into the complicated imagery of “Nosegays and Knuckle Sandwiches,” a 10-year survey of paintings by New York artist Thomas Woodruff. The show, originally organized by the Atlanta College of Art Gallery, runs through July 13 at the Huntington Beach Art Center.

In town recently for the show’s opening, Woodruff sports a brush cut and goatee, black jeans and pointy-toed black shoes. His arms are scrolls of multicolored tattoos collected over 15 years. “I think of myself as an image-monger,” the 40-year-old artist says.

He appears equally drawn to obscure scientific illustrations, symbolism from the Odd Fellows and traditional still-life painting. With a rare technical finesse, he combines elements of pop culture with 17th century Dutch vanitas motifs and 19th century American realist trompe l’oeil. He conscientiously steals from periods in which feelings about mortality, love, faith and desire were unapologetically expressed in art.

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Woodruff has no patience for the Modernist conceit of less is more.

“Modernism is all head and no heart,” he says. He embraced emotion, he says, in response to the loss of friends to AIDS, eager to make art that would be equal to tragedy, as did great artists such as Rembrandt and Goya.

In a series called “Secret Charts,” each letter of the alphabet incorporates a piece of parchment with curled edges, like the tattoo on Woodruff’s back, and features arcane combinations of diagrams and bluebirds, jewels and iconic figures. It’s a chronicle, the artist says, of a friend’s demise. On one of his daily visits to the hospital, he recalls, he caught himself whistling the opera “Aida.”

“I got angry. [‘Aida’] was all this 19th century crap about the romance of death. But I realized that art can provide some sort of solace, where you can reflect on these things.”

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Woodruff tends to work in series, and his most recent is “The Apple Canon.” Painting an apple a day to keep the doctor away, he generated a stunning 365 canvases of red, yellow and green fruit, set in different backgrounds or arranged among such still-life standards as flowers. Woodruff says that he hopes the piece, poignant in its simplicity, will wind up in a hospital, where it might continue its talismanic chore.

Woodruff was raised in a large Catholic family in the prosperous New York City suburb of New Rochelle. Woodruff’s mother taught elementary school, and his father worked as a supervisor at the NBC complex in nearby Manhattan. The elder Woodruff often took Thomas to see the backstage workings of the live TV shows. A picture in the “Nosegays” exhibition catalog shows the future artist celebrating his third birthday as a member of the “Howdy Doody Time” audience.

“Artificiality as metaphor was presented to me really early,” Woodruff says. “That’s why I love opera. I learned that you can extend reality through artificiality to find the truth.”

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After high school, Woodruff moved to Manhattan to study art, graduating from Cooper Union with a bachelor of fine arts degree in 1979. Although Woodruff studied there with artist and avant-garde theater director Robert Wilson, conceptual artist Hans Haacke dominated the curriculum; young artists who wanted to paint found little support.

Woodruff taught himself the techniques of glazing and scumbling, as practiced by the Old Masters. He also worked at painting portraits, persuading family members to sit in full costume. When he loosely roughed out his paintings, teachers praised the results. But when he tightened his technique toward a gleaming realism, he got criticism.

“At art schools, they still teach that loose is good and tight is bad, though there is really no reason why this is the case,” says Woodruff, who teaches at New York’s prestigious School of Visual Arts.

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Woodruff says the aversion many contemporary artists profess for frankly beautiful or emotional paintings stems from family backgrounds. “Bourgeois,” he says. “Most artists are running from their bourgeois roots.

“Modernism taught us that feeling is bad. It’s all about art for art’s sake. It’s all about intellectual argument and not about what it’s like to be alive.”

Woodruff’s earliest paintings in the show, “Rosabelle, Believe,” depict in luminist style a snowman progressively melting away. “I bear witness to what it’s like to be alive,” he explains.

Woodruff admits to being a romantic, though he adds, “I’m named after Doubting Thomas.”

He’s skeptical of an art world that finds the most sadomasochistic photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe less offensive than sentimental images of mice, kittens and ducks, which the artist appropriated from a series of Polish greeting cards.

“People can’t see a kitten with a goldfish bowl because it evokes sentiment which people think of as being weak,” Woodruff says. “Not being afraid of sentiment makes you real, not weak.”

* “Nosegays and Knuckle Sandwiches: Works by Thomas Woodruff,” through July 13 in Galleries 1 & 2 at the Huntington Beach Art Center, 538 Main St. $2-$3. Tuesday-Wednesday, noon-6 p.m.; Thursday-Saturday, noon-8 p.m., and Sunday, noon-4 p.m. (714) 374-1650.


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