1. Art

‘Grandeur Of Imagination’ Invites Complex Narratives In The Enchanting Paintings Of Tony South

A pensive ape, clad in relaxed jeans, white shirt, sport jacket, fedora, and skinny tie, the laces on his Chuck Taylor’s loosened, takes a pauses from drawing his cigarette. The index finger of his smokeless hand taps the ivory key of an upright piano, its lid propped, exposing the hammers and action. A bullldog wearing a “security” T-shirt is on watch by the trap work, drawing the viewer’s eye to the pirate dog logo on the bottle of Rumson’s Rum resting alongside a heavy pour on the open lid.

“Please don’t feed the musicians,” quips a roadway-style sign screwed to the side of the piano and above a musical drummer robot toy, possibly the quintessential 1956 Nomura R57 drumming robot.

The menagerie of characters and cultural references come into play, as thoughtful humor infuses the complex emotional narrative of Tony South’s new painting, Interlude, oil and acrylic richly layered on a square white canvas. 

Interlude is “a snapshot of reflection midst performance, the image sprung to life whilst listening to an old Tom Waits album and progressed from there. The booze bottle is a regular icon in my work, maybe it’s a subconscious two finger salute to the addiction that once held me,” explained South, a self-taught artist from Southern Yorkshire, England.

Created before and during the pandemic and quarantine, some sorrow is woven into the visually joyful work. 

South said “the image sprung to life” while he was listening to the disjointed rhythms and strange instrumentation mixing marimba, accordion, and various percussion, and the often surreal lyrics delivered through Tom Waits’ guttural, gravelly voice, on Rain Dogs. The American singer-songwriter’s eighth studio album was released in September 1985 to ruminate on “the urban dispossessed” of New York City.

“The painting was underway before the pandemic emerged and finished in mid throe. Painting as of itself is usually a solitary and self absorbing process, so on that side of things the pandemic has had little affect, personally, on the other side I lost an old musician friend to this virus and that really hit home,” said South. “Given time, galleries/art fairs will re-open and engage, will this pandemic shape the views and attitudes to our brief time in the sun, I have no idea, time will tell.”

South’s technical skill is remarkable, and his vast influences build fascinating dialogues among an array of characters born from decades of pop culture and his immediate surroundings. His diverse paintings are available exclusively at Rehs Contemporary Galleries, Inc. in New York.

“The grandeur of South’s imagination is immediately present, but what elevates the work is his ability to visually articulate these concoctions; bringing his imagination to the brink of reality,” said Lance Rehs, a fourth-generation art dealer and director of Rehs Contemporary Galleries.“He captures attention in a surprisingly universal way, regardless if the subject matter resonates on a personal level, it seems there is a greater appreciation for how he fully embraces his creativity. Perhaps reminding us all, even for a moment, of a childlike wonder we each have inside.”

South credits “the whole Marvel and DC comic world” as his art education, sparking the fresh feel of his early work. “Gone were the old plaster cast drawing references and in came this glossy world of line and form, the power of the illustrative image blew me away as a youth and I spent countless hours trying to replicate them, then as I got older it was the fantastic array of record/album covers that were abundant in the 70s, all adding to fuel the grey cells,” he explained.

South began playing percussion and drums at school, participating in the local youth orchestra before venturing on to various rock bands. “I wasn’t the best drummer going but I got by. I stopped playing live, to concentrate on recovering from alcoholism, after the 4th attempt at rehab the penny finally dropped and sobriety stepped forward,” he recalled. “So I fell back on painting which lends itself so well to the isolation and self reflection I needed at the time.. Painting became my twelfth step so to say, it became bigger than me. I do miss the physicality of live performance though.”

“I have lived on the outskirts of Rotherham all my life, a comfortable mix of industry and countryside all within a stones throw. Wentworth Woodhouse (a Grade I listed country house) is a 20-minute walk from my place, boasting to be one of the biggest stately homes in the UK with a bigger façade than Buckingham Palace no less. It’s a stunning building and used to house a selection of George Stubbs paintings,” said South. “I also have a great affection for the Peak district just a short car journey away.”

It’s fitting that South was inspired by George Stubbs ARA, as the English painter, best known for his paintings of horses, also was self-trained, honing his skills from other great artists of the eighteenth century such as Reynolds and Gainsborough. Stubbs was classified in his lifetime as a sporting painter, thereby excluding him full membership of the Royal Academy. South’s subject matter is much broader, encompassing so many stories, all executed with his singular style.

Three hogs stand upright, donning the Alex Delarge costume from A Clockwork Orange: white dress shirt, white dress pants, a black derby hat, black boots, and white supporter. Two wield the classic straight walking cane, and third readies a wooden baseball bat. They surround a brazen red car deigned digitally as an homage to the Ford coupe classic 1930s hot rod. It replaces the futurist M-505 Adams Brothers Probe 16 imagined for A Clockwork Orange and referenced in the film as the Durango 95 because South wanted space on the bodywork to create a mural with the title and Delarge’s sinister visage. 

The Moloko Muscle title is a riff on Moloko Plus, also called Knifey Moloko or Moloko Drengo, a highball cocktail concocted by English writer Anthony Burgess for the 1962 dystopian satirical dark humor novel. The fictional term originates from the Russian word for milk, молоко (pronounced mah-lah-KOH.) The book is partially written in a Russian-influenced argot known as Nadsat and used by the teenage gang members.

The novel and the 1971 Stanley Kubrick film are timely amid today’s global violence and social and political unrest, but South is borrowing more for style than content. The novel and film showcase the Korova (from the Russian word for cow) Milkbar, specializing in Korova Plus, milk mixed with a selection of legal drugs.

The Clockwork Orange thing for me was more about the imagery and concept. Being an illustrative type of artist I was more immersed in the superficial rather than the narrative, the milk bar, make-up, bowler hats etc, although the narrative does seem slightly prophetic in recent times,” said South, noting he enjoyed Malcolm McDowell in the lead role of the 1968 allegorical film If…., portraying pupil Mick Travis who led a revolution at a stodgy private school in England. McDowell is more widely known for fueling box office success that evolved into a cult classic by bringing to the screen charismatic, antisocial juvenile delinquent Alex Delarge.

Biker culture and the the female personification of Britain are subverted in South’s witty and whimsical Britannia Revisited. A proud ape wears a helmet, holding a shield and trident, mimicking the classic personification, the shiny armor playing off the sheen of the motorcycle. 

“Today, most of my paintings are finished in my head way before they hit canvas, there may be a few sketches regarding composition and balance, but the image is virtually finished, I roughly mock up the concept digitally and transfer it to canvas usually by the grid method,” said South. “An underpainting of acrylic is blocked in and later overpainted in glazes of oil paint to bring out depth of color and form.”

That technique works well for South’s array of subjects, including his celebration of hot rod culture in works like Silver Surfer.

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