“Even though his imagery implies a passage of souls from one plane to the next, the earthen grit of his hues encases his figures, binding them to mortal confinement. Tom’s characters hardly acknowledge each other; instead they just go about their business in the shadows.” – Trenton Doyle Hancock
Louisiana-based artist Tom Secrest, has always accompanied his work as a printmaker with countless numbers of drawings and paintings. Incredibly prolific, the artist possesses thousands of notebooks containing his work. Embracing the fantastic and psychological over the real, Secrest’s influences include such varied imagery as the early illustrations of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by John Neill, childhood storybooks like Journeys Through Bookland and the plethora of images employed by the celebration of Halloween. Since childhood, he has used artwork as a means of escaping his surroundings and to, as the artist describes, “…fall into my own form of ‘Neverland’ or down Alice’s rabbit hole.”
In his first solo exhibition in New York, the works on view comprise poignant examples of the artist’s unique imagination and recurring themes from the past several years. Secrest generally begins each piece without a specific subject in mind; rather, armed with these influences and his own life experiences, he lets each piece materialize on its own. This also speaks to the fact that he never titles his works, opting for them to speak for themselves. The winged figure in Untitled, 1998 (above, left) could be viewed as, among other things, an angel or a vampire and is a recurring subject in his work. This ambiguity is mirrored in Secrest’s own life experiences, as the piece was created just before the bittersweet event of the artist’s retirement from his position as Associate Professor of Visual Arts at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
Secrest began doing self portraits while in undergraduate school and has continued throughout his career, often inserting his own image alongside fantastical characters like in Untitled, 2006. Oftentimes the artist finds frames, preferably ones which he considers to be “non-academic,” and then creates a piece specifically for the frame. Flat, geometric shapes and eyeless, isolated figures mix with the artist’s muted, earthen palette to create a cryptic world where the line between the ethereal and the substantial is blurred. The inclusion of the artist’s own likeness in these works underlines the complete incorporation of his work and inspirations in all facets of his life and environment. They provide the viewer with the perfect windows into which one gets an unedited glimpse of the artist’s own version of the traditional “fairy tale.”