Michael Tole is a figurative painter currently living in Tempe, AZ with his wife and daughters. A Texas native, most of his 20 year long career was spent in Dallas. After relocating to Tempe, his work experienced a significant shift from photo-based paintings of retail interiors to fantastical figurative inventions based on pop culture imagery he has encountered via his two daughters, and his proximity to Southern California and it’s particular brand of Disney-esque hedonism.
Years in the making, this latest body of work is finally ready for exhibition. Prior to the body of
work submitted in this application, Mr. Tole’s career included shows in New York, San
Francisco, Dallas, and Miami. His work has been reviewed in Art Forum International, San
Francisco Chronicle, Dallas Morning News, and Hi-Fructose.com.
"My current work explores the evolution of gender norms, power dynamics, and representation within Western visual culture and what this implies for the negotiation between pleasure, justice, and our culturally specific discourse on beauty. This work is inspired in part by my pre-teen daughters’ growing musical interests which has exposed me for the first time to the world of music videos. My daughters are primarily interested in pop divas such as Taylor Swift, Beyonce, Ariana Grande, and Katy Perry. Seeing a number of these videos, I observe that they employ an aesthetic that rests comfortably within Baroque and Rococo parameters, exhibiting chiaroscuro, ostentatious displays of wealth, over-the-top emotionalism, fantasy, self-aggrandizement, pastel color schemes, gender fluidity (a trait more Rococo than Baroque), and heaping piles of conventionally attractive young women in sexually provocative poses. What differs between these eras are the themes of female agency and authorship, yet the similarities between Katy Perry and Fragonard leave me feeling conflicted about our culture, my daughters’ socialization, and my own relationship to this kind of imagery. Though skeptical, I would be a hypocrite to pretend that I am completely immune to these highly produced, test marketed, pop culture contrivances. I decided to explore my ambivalence toward this imagery and what it signifies through the current series of paintings. We may not normally consider the genre of teen pop music videos fodder for philosophical reflection, but the fantasies they create reveal deep truths about us, and those truths deserve our conscious consideration. To do so, I set out on a mission to master Baroque and Rococo pictorial rhetoric, believing it to be the best vehicle to explore the continuity and disjuncture between 18th and 21st century Western visual culture. I intend to create paintings that can hang side by side with old master works in a museum that, viewed at a glance, would not stand out from their neighbors, but upon further inspection would begin to reveal to the viewer those aspects of culture that have evolved, and those that have remained the same over centuries, inviting comparison, analysis, introspection, and perhaps a chuckle."
Tell us a little about yourself and your background in the arts.
I live in Tempe, AZ, but lived most of my life in Dallas, TX. I began showing professionally the year after graduating with my BFA from UT Austin, and was the youngest artist ever represented by my gallery. In addition to periods of time working as a full time artist, I have also worked as an art educator, teaching first at the high school level, then adjuncting at a university, and I am now an associate professor of art at a small liberal arts college in Arizona.
What kind of work are you currently making?
I am making oil paintings in appropriated historical styles to explore the evolution of our culture as reflected in Western visual culture. My paintings are constructed with thin, layered glazes built up from an umber sketch to full color. Over the past several years, I have experimented extensively to reverse engineer historical techniques to serve as a visual foil to the subject matter which reflects evolving social realities.
What is a day like in the studio for you?
My studio days are Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and whatever part of my weekend isn't taken up with chores (which isn't much). After dropping my daughters off at school, I attempt to answer my work email in as little time as humanly possible, scan my Outlook calendar for appointments, and if I have an "All Clear" in my calendar for at least 3-4 hours, I begin my painting routine.
Painting, for me, begins with 20 minutes of crippling performance anxiety, during which I try to visualize what I'll do that day and how...vacillating back and forth between the various options, and scanning Instagram to distract me from the anxiety induced nausea. When I have overthought the possibilities so thoroughly that my mind goes totally blank, and I have determined nothing more than the physical area I intend to cover with paint that day, I begin an OCD process of methodically laying out my color palette, mixing all the hues I need in 5 value gradients, and 3 saturation gradients, and allowing my mind to be clear of all thought beyond the ACT of mixing paint. Then, I unceremoniously put the first brushstroke down on the canvas in the most dangerous, and important part of that day's work with as little thought
as possible. Good or bad, that first stroke becomes the thing that the entire rest of the painting session seeks to fix, glorify, react to, or cover up. It never becomes what I visualized, and that's usually for the best.
At 12:30, I get dizzy, so I walk to the kitchen, eat a few tablespoons of peanut butter and honey, water the plants in my backyard, and play with the dog. Then, if my calendar is still clear, I start the process over again in a new section of the painting.
At 3:00 I pick up my daughters, and between 3:30 and 5:30, I attempt to fix and/or put the finishing touches on the day's work between questions about homework, snack allotments, and occasional hugs.
Once my wife gets home at 5:30, all work must stop instantly, and she becomes the center of my world until she goes to work the next morning.
What are you looking at right now and/or reading?
I look primarily at fashion magazines, music videos, Tik Tok, and anything having to do with the fantasy industrial complex of Southern California, Las Vegas, New York (but to a much lesser extent), and the US generally. I consider Phoenix, AZ the easternmost suburb of LA, having met countless actors, models, camera/tech people who live in AZ and drive in to LA for gigs. As I have begun showing there on a fairly frequent basis, I consider myself one of these commuting creatives...the desert version of the bridge and tunnel people of NYC. Hence, I am both close enough to see first hand, and far enough away to objectively consider the Disney-esq hedonism of SoCal. To balance this, or perhaps to contextualize it
within a broader cultural tradition, I also look closely at Jean Francois deTroy, Antoine Coypel, and Tiepolo...and also Boucher, my guilty pleasure whose work I consider middling in so many ways, yet can't dislodge from my brain. It is his ghost that I see everywhere today, from Taylor Swift and Fergie, to Victoria's Secret and the Italian fashion houses. All of my work stems from the attempt to negotiate and come to terms with a problematic obsession of one kind or another.
In terms of reading, I just finished, The Third Chimpanzee, by Jared Diamond. I have read many books that explore anthropology, evolution, evolutionary psychology, and sociology, particularly as it relates to gender, race and history. The Evolution of Beauty, A Billion Wicked Thoughts, and Louann Brizendine's books on differences in the male and female brains are other books that have influenced me, though many of their hypotheses and conclusions differ. Much of this reading issues from a life long need to understand how the world got as ****ed up as it is.
In terms of fiction, my favorite author is Umberto Eco, particularly one of his lesser known novels, Baudolino. I LOVE this book, and more people should read it. I have read it six times, and I never tire of it. I love that Eco's work combines the most exquisitely encyclopedic historicism with dick and poop jokes, all while wrestling with the void of meaning and purpose in life. It speaks to me, and though it doesn't give me answers, it makes me feel less alone in my confusion. Lastly, My favorite American novel is Moby Dick. It's such an epic, and it's soooo funny. Why doesn't anyone give Melville credit for how funny he is! The first page of that book is hysterical. Now that I see this written, I obviously have a
penchant for tragic epics, and ill fated protagonists.
I hate Proust, and The Remembrance of Things Past! There, I said it. I read it cover to cover...waiting all the while to see what all the fuss was about, and I never saw it. I am naturally an introvert, and that book is basically just my wandering mind on any given morning as I sip my coffee and wait for my wife to wake up. Nothing in that book strikes me as least bit insightful. It taught me nothing I didn't already know...took me on no journeys...and it was humorless...the greatest sin of all.
Where can we find more of your work?
I am currently in a group show at TAG Gallery in Los Angeles, and will be in No Dead Artists at Jonathan Ferrara Gallery in New Orleans in September. My website is www.michaeltole.com, and my Insta is