Spotlight Project: Featuring Tim Tozer

Spotlight Project

The Spotlight Project, created and curated by Michael Hopkins, brings attention to artists who might be known locally or regionally but deserve to be seen by a much larger audience. Each post will feature an artist that you may not know, but should.

Michael Hopkins: You went to the University of Ulster in Belfast, Northern Ireland in the late eighties during a chaotic time there. How did this affect you personally, artistically and psychologically?

Tim Tozer: I was in Belfast at the tail end of the Troubles -1989-1992 I believe. There were still soldiers, and the occasional bomb (one shook the windows of the house I lived in.) I was English and a student, so a little removed from it all geographically and emotionally. I wanted to concentrate on painting in a non-painting school; the emphasis there was on installation and performance, which I tried to engage with, although my heart wasn’t really in it. The attempt by many of my teachers to drive a wedge between us and the history that led me to paint was almost more upsetting than the surrounding political angst. I hated the place, to be honest, but stuck it out because it felt like the right thing to do. However, anyone growing up in Thatcher’s Britain became politicized one way or another, and I liked the British presence there no more than my Northern Irish peers.

Tim Tozer

Tim Tozer, Black Mass I, acrylic and spray paint on panel, 2015

MH: The titles of the four paintings, Black Mass I, II, III, and IV, are they referring to a large body of matter, or is this a religious reference?

TT: Initially the idea of mass refers to visual weight (or the lack of it), although I’m aware it could also have religious connotations; I wouldn’t desire or reject that connection if it were made. I think part of what brings me back to abstraction are the subliminal references that I create or bump into.

Tim Tozer

Tim Tozer, Black Mass II, acrylic and spray paint on panel, 2016

MH: To me, the secondary marks in the Black Mass paintings are critical to the success of the work. Do these secondary marks come about consciously or unconsciously?

TT: By secondary marks, I presume you’re referring to the marks painted or etched into the surface after the initial paint layer is dry. To differentiate, most of the paintings are built all at once; a thick layer of liquid paint is covered with spray paint, which dries quickly. By peeling away or slicing into the layer of spray paint, the wet layer of acrylic beneath is revealed; in this way, I can create clear shapes or lines. However, because the process is inherently unpredictable, the peeled shapes can split and migrate, or the sliced lines can begin to gape, slide or bleed. When it works, this mix of planned and uncontrolled relationships can manifest the kind of tension I’m looking for in the work: perhaps this could even act as a metaphor for the conscious and unconscious mind. However, all the paintings are the result of long consideration, so it’s hard to claim the presence of anything authentically unconscious. The accidents in the process of making them are a way for me to sneak up on myself, and to access subconscious desires that I cannot otherwise will into being.

I suppose then that the marks I make after the fact are a way of organizing or questioning my first response. I think of all the added lines as drawing – provisional ideas for the way space can be read in the work. While I want all my decisions to cohere into an indivisible whole, if contrary impulses are still legible then the work succeeds.

Tim Tozer

Tim Tozer, Black Mass III, acrylic and spray paint on panel, 2016

MH: How do you decide on what size the painting should be?

TT: In order to understand what I’m doing I usually work on several paintings at once, and these tend to vary in scale. Of course the idea of size in painting relates to the body; the feeling of scale is something else – a fiction within the painting itself. Some paintings need to be larger – the span of one’s arms, say, or the height of one’s eyes; this need might arise from what I want to see or the process I want to engage in. It’s not necessarily more time-consuming making larger works, but orchestrating them is usually more challenging, and at times this challenge is required to push the work in a certain direction.

However, the size of many of my most recent paintings came out of prior knowledge of the space they were going to occupy, and my sense of how they would inhabit this space. The room was long and narrow, making it pointless to build larger works one couldn’t see from a distance. The smaller sized panels allowed me to experiment with how the paintings were built, and ultimately to develop a process I’d never used before.

MH: You use spray paint in these paintings. Any concerns about the archival properties of the spray paint?

TT: Not really.

Tim Tozer

Tim Tozer, Black Mass IV, acrylic and spray paint on panel, 2016

MH: You’ve been teaching drawing and painting in college since 1999. What do you think has been some of the biggest artistic influences on your students over the past seventeen years?

TT: All my teaching has been in the Midwest, in places removed from the major cultural hubs. Here teachers have a disproportionate amount of influence on the way a student might develop, from the way they’re introduced to art, to the strategies they’re taught to the artists they’re exposed to. In addition, over the course of my career the internet has eclipsed the university library or the local museum as a key source of learning. I think this is a good thing if it allows the curious student to wrest some of their teacher’s influence away so they can discover their own path. I feel I was largely self-taught; however, I got to teach myself in museums and galleries in London and New York, with real artworks to learn from. The danger of the internet – and the pervasiveness of digital imagery and image-making – is that it has become an accepted substitute for the actual experience of being with artworks; in some cases, I think students feel more comfortable with art that has been mediated for them, like processed food. While it gives access to collections and shows few Midwestern students can afford to travel to see, it can deceive the non-skeptical into believing they have understood art vicariously, through reproduction. I rely on image searches for my teaching as much as anyone else in my field, but I try to remind myself and my students that we have to be wary of judgment without the proof of direct experience.


Tim Tozer: Artist Statement

In my current work, I want to assemble clear, distilled structures in paint – self-contained objects that are in conversation with their surroundings without representing them directly. I take vernacular structures (signage, packaging) as a point of departure, as well as a context in which to work.

The physicality of paint gives me a means of exploring a narrative of intention and accident. Through successive layers and sustained improvisation in each painting, I look for configurations of color and shape that suggest future change while retaining a sense of stability – a point of resolution and immanence.

Creating the work is a process of compressing the distance between competing desires, which for me precipitates the possibility of meaning within the search for concrete formal relationships. This process – like any direct human interaction – is physical and improvised, demanding flexibility and persistence.

More Information on Tim here.


Michael Hopkins is a writer and artist who makes drawings, paintings, and sculptures. He has work in numerous museum collections including the Art Institute of Chicago. He has work in numerous corporate art collections including the Progressive Collection and the Wellcome Trust Collection in London, England. He is a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant recipient.