In 1971, Robert Tharsing moved to Lexington to work as a painting instructor at the University of Kentucky. Geographically, he was thousands of miles from his home state of California; culturally he was perhaps even further removed. On the West Coast, he had grown up near Los Angeles and later studied painting at UC Berkeley under talents like David Hockney and Elmer Bischoff. An unrepentant contrarian, Tharsing was uninterested in the machinations of the art world but completely obsessed by the possibilities of painting. In his new environment, there was time and space to explore.
In the early 1970s, Tharsing began pushing the limits of his own work, transforming traditional canvas paintings into objects and freeing them from the confines of stretcher bars. He pinned massive canvases directly to the wall, draped them over tent poles, and even painted on clothing items he purchased at local thrift stores like Goodwill and the Salvation Army. This latter series, begun in 1979, was in some ways the most ambitious.
Tharsing began these paintings by laying out collected skirts, dresses, overalls, bellbottoms, and other raw clothing items and slathering them with polymer medium. Unlike a traditional canvas, they were irregularly shaped with varied surfaces that bore buttons, seams, collars, and hems. The human form was both startlingly absent and overtly implied, something Tharsing used to great effect by “freezing” them (with polymer medium) in newly-prescribed states of motion. His action helps us imagine their former roles as participants in the quotidian realities of life, with us while we have meals, go dancing, lie in the park, or lounge around the house.
Robert Tharsing painted exactly twenty of these works before moving on to other endeavors. They were displayed only once during his lifetime in a small exhibition at the University of Kentucky in 1981. While these painted clothes are not necessarily typical of Tharsing’s style, they give tremendous insight into the mind of the artist, his willingness to explore and experiment with painting in every way possible.
Robert Tharsing: Second-Hand Shapes was a pop-up exhibition at Institute 193 from May 4 – 20, 2017 coinciding with retrospectives honoring the artist at the Lexington Art League and Ann Tower Gallery.
Photos courtesy of Phillip March Jones