When you walk into the Halsey this week, you're being invited to solve a mystery.
Tom Stanley's paintings are a series of black-and-white rectangles etched with geometric shapes, tangled lines, boxy houses, and round-bellied boats. Coming face-to-face with his canvases feels like walking into a stark picture book co-created by Sweeney Todd and a young Frank Lloyd Wright. The works, produced over the last 14 years — while Stanley was doing double-duty as Chair of Winthrop University's Department of Fine Arts — range from straightforward to mindfucking (in the best way).
"In The Neighborhood," a dozen square, black houses sit in perfectly straight lines on a blank white background. On the opposite end of the spectrum, a piece called "#1" is a zentangle of black, red, and white shapes tripping over each other in angular chaos. For the Halsey's exhibit, Scratching the Surface, curator Bryan Granger gives us a survey of the Carolina native's decades-long love affair with black-and-white and the scratching technique called sgraffito. But the paintings only scratch the surface of Stanley's story.
Beneath the black paint of Stanley's work is a family mystery. Those sgraffito boats you see are the closest thing to a portrait of Stanley's long-lost grandfather that the artist can get.
"He drowned in the Mississippi in 1920," says Stanley, who travelled to New Orleans repeatedly in the early aughts in search of a picture of his grandfather. "The one thing I did find was the police report. They don't know how he drowned, but the headline is great: 'Young painter John Thomas Stanley drowns in the river.'"
Young house painter John Thomas Stanley drowned mysteriously at the spot where Harmony Street dead-ends into the Mississippi. But that was 1920 and by the time Stanley went searching, levees had been built on the spot.
"So I went out on the ships," says Stanley, "and there I learned that New Orleans is one of the largest port cities in the world. On the ships, I just knew my series would be based on ships and boats."
Stanley's pieces always start and end in mystery — he prefers it that way. When it's not the mystery of his patriarch's missing portrait, Stanley's inspiration comes to him inexplicably as he works, painting whatever comes into his head.
"The most I plan out is what color I'm going to use first, or that I'm going to do boats," he says. "I don't know how big or where. I just begin and try to work as intuitively as possible. It becomes almost a call-and-response. I start one painting, go on to the next, and by the time I come back around I try to respond to that first mark."
Stanley's sgraffito process sounds like a control freak's worst nightmare. For the artist though, spontaneity gives him the greatest thrill.
After covering his blank canvases completely with black paint, Stanley moves almost ceaselessly between the panels. Immediately after completing one line on one panel, he's on to the next panel for the next line, until the lines become shapes, the shapes become a structure, and a whole tangle of geometry fills the space. Some works are more transparent while others look like Picasso wrote instructions for playing Shoots and Ladders on an etch-a-sketch. If Stanley doesn't move quickly enough, the paint will harden and his scratches won't penetrate the surface.
"Once the paint dries, it's done," he says. "I don't have time to think about it a great deal. And I enjoy that aspect of the work, working very immediately."
The unknown is seductive for Stanley. This is a man who scoured New Orleans for an old photo and ended up floating the Mississippi. He also volunteered to work in a maximum security prison back in graduate school. "In the first class I taught, when I passed out the pencils some guy pulled out a four inch blade and started sharpening his pencils," he laughs. "He turned out to be a really nice guy." Decades later, Stanley is still not one to shy away from darkness or mystery.
"I'm retiring soon ... every day it becomes sooner," says Stanley, who is leaving Winthrop June 15. "Quite honestly I don't know what I'll do or where I'll be next. What's exciting is that I don't know what I'll make next. After being in an academic setting, I'm excited to make something I haven't seen before."
In Scratching the Surface, the void is just the beginning. Stanley starts with solid black canvasses, family mysteries, and unplanned futures. Look closely and every scratch into the blackness seems to ask: is the answer to the mystery just beneath the surface?