Timothy Hoyt’s paintings depict narrative scenes of mythology and fantasy that are sourced both from Greco-Roman myths and his own imagination. Hoyt’s practice is a project of world building. His paintings, while portraying disparate stories, scenes, and characters, operate collectively to create a cohesive mood and atmosphere where viewers can understand that these works operate within the same universe without any specific knowledge of the characters, place, or time.
Heavily influenced by comic books and scifi/fantasy narratives found in literature, film, and video games, Hoyt’s earlier works use Greco-Roman mythology as a means to explore and develop the themes found in these genres to develop a visual language of storytelling. In one, Perseus slices of Medusa’s head, posed in a heroic lunge with his arm outstretched grasping his sword carrying through the blow, his shield glinting in the moonlight, while Medusa’s stunned figure is frozen in its immediate death. In another, Pandora’s body is sprawled across a floor, holding open a large box where an ominous and powerful golden glow emanates from its depths, basking her form in light and casting looming shadows across the surrounding dark, moonlit room. Hoyt’s works engage the drama of these stories, amplifying mood and atmosphere through his play with light and shadow and his depictions of these classical scenes.
Hoyt’s more recent body of work moves away from direct mythological references to works that clearly inhabit a similar world or environment but are not nameable or known characters. Regardless, these same thematic overtones of drama, intrigue, and suspense are highlighted through these constructed scenes. These themes evoke not only these classical legends and familiar narratives, but also echo our own current realities. The application of fantasy acts as a means to explore our current socio-political realities, using the framework of these mythological scenes to explore the real drama that surrounds us in today’s tumultuous political world. Hoyt’s paintings of cities and aqueducts aflame, figures crying out in horror as fire rains from the skies, or amphora vases shattering immediately parallel the stress and anxieties felt through our country’s own recent horrors and terrifying upheavals of our reality following the election. For Hoyt, fantasy becomes a means to explore our realities, marrying them together in a unified and symbiotic partnership.
Timothy Hoyt was born in New York, NY and received his BFA from Pennsylvania State University, PA in 2011 and his MFA from The American University, Washington, D.C. in 2015. Hoyt’s work has been shown across the United States and in Europe, most recently at The Hole this past Fall in the large group exhibition Got It For Cheap. He currently lives and works in Brooklyn, NY.
What is your background in art? How has your practice developed into your current body of work in terms of thought process and subject matter?
I grew up constantly drawing, and I’ve always had a love for comic books, movies, animation, etc. So art, not necessarily fine art, but art in general was always around me and a part of my life. It wasn’t until I went to college that I actually started painting.
I was doing a lot of portraiture in undergrad because it came naturally to me. When I went to grad school, people wondered why I was interested in it and I didn’t have a good answer. After that, I actually ended up not painting people for a long time.
I finished grad school two years ago and went to a residency last summer where I worked with a painter whose work I’ve admired for a very long time, and that’s when my own work started to come back to the figure.
What were you figuring out and thinking about in terms of the figure and what was the reason for returning to it?
I just have a love for painting the figure. Ever since sketching superheroes as a kid, I’ve been drawn to it. After not painting people for about a year, I felt like I had taken enough time away. I took that break because I wanted to figure out why I was painting them in the first place and, more importantly, what world I wanted to put them in. Location. That became the big question. Once I felt like I had a grip on that, I brought them back into the work.
Your earlier portraiture works are much more realistic in how things are rendered. Can you talk about your shift in realism and representation?
In the more realistic work, I was essentially photographing my friends and painting them on a large scale. A lot of the criticism that that work received was that if I was going to use the photograph, it had to have some kind of conceptual meaning within the work. I had merely been using the photograph as a means to an end. So after those critiques, I got away from the photograph, and through that I got away from the figure. I wasn’t yet comfortable painting these more stylized figures at the time, so I just didn’t paint any at all.
I went through this whole distillation of imagery figuring out what I wanted to paint. The best thing to come out of it was a series of paintings of ships. The ships encompassed a lot of what I was thinking about at the time. I was young. I was taking my first steps out into the world and I didn’t know what I wanted to do or where I wanted to go. I had a sense of wanting to be an artist, but I didn’t know what that meant or how exactly how to pursue it besides making work. So the ship represented the exploration of the unknown. I was imagining ships in those times, going out into this seemingly endless sea not knowing what you’re going to find on the other side, if there is one. It must have taken guts to do that with only what we think of now as rudimentary technology. Eventually my range of subject matter broadened again and when I came back to the figure, I had long abandoned the photograph. So now they look like this. They’ve adapted to the world I’ve made for them.
Can you talk about the mythological themes in your works? What attracts you to that imagery and how do you approach narrative?
Mythological themes have always been threaded into what I consume, be it comic books, novels, movies, or video games. I grew up playing Final Fantasy, buying Spider-man comic books, and reading The Lord of the Rings and His Dark Materials trilogies. It was only natural that those themes would eventually come out in my work. When I began painting the figure again, Greek and Roman mythology appealed to me as a way to start exploring those themes on the canvas. However, I’m not an expert on Greek or Roman mythology and continually painting them began to feel insincere, so I moved on to subject matter that was less specific but still borrowed from those and various other worlds.
What was the shift like moving away from photographs, and how are you now developing the works?
It was frustrating at the time but I’m glad I did it. It forced me to learn how to paint all over again. I began making paintings that were disparate in subject matter, but still felt cohesive in the sense that they could all exist in the same world. That was really exciting for me. I was making a lot of really small paintings of people stranded on islands, or ships, or animals, but there would be these little clues in each painting that would connect them all together. Not being tied to any reference definitely forced me to put my imagination to work in a way that I hadn’t before.
What’s your work process like now?
Most pieces will start with a very loose idea, which I might sketch out or make a quick, small painting of. The small paintings can exist on their own, and I really enjoy them as their own entities, but they mostly serve as basic ideas for larger work. Scaling up the work is when a lot of the ideas are developed.
This painting, Palm Reader, started just as an idea of someone reacting frightened to what she was reading through someone’s hands. As the painting progressed, the scene felt underdeveloped. That’s when the window came in, which then informed the lighting and color because of the moonlight on that side. Then the candle came in to balance the temperature of the painting. The two competing light sources then made the figures and other objects pop so I really wanted to fill the painting up with objects symbolizing fate and bad luck to where it starts to become humorous.
Light and light sources are really present in your works. How are you approaching light and shadow?
I try to use light as a way to ground everything. I’m depicting figures and objects in a stylized manner, so I try to use light and shadow to hold everything together within the frame and make some physical sense of the world the figures are occupying. Kyle Staver is a big inspiration in terms of using light in that sense. Everything, aside from the light, in her paintings is entirely unnatural, but the light and color are so fine-tuned that you don’t question any of it.
Your paintings represent moments of intense climactic drama, foreboding, or high tension. How are you marrying this fantastical, mythological world that you’ve created with the contemporary moment?
For the most recent work, a lot of that was a gut reaction to the current political environment. I’ve always been a fan of dark and apocalyptic narrative, particularly Cormac McCarthy, so that’s why the work took that specific direction. The crumbling of civilization doesn’t seem so far out of reach and the smashed vases and burning aqueducts are sort of a simplified representation of that.
The work will always depict a fantasy world I would enjoy exploring, ominous enough to evoke adventure and whimsical enough to be inviting. The political themes are able to occur there because they are problems that would occur anywhere. They aren’t unique or new problems, they’re just seem new to us.
What’s your biggest frustration working on these paintings?
I work very slow and constantly change my mind. As I said, a lot of the ideas occur during the painting process so there is a lot of trial and error. I also paint pretty thin which can take away from the surface so I have to constantly be aware of that.
What kind of surface are you trying to achieve?
I like my surfaces; they’re kind of scratchy, but that’s sometimes a criticism. I also just don’t have the patience to make slick, clean, hard-edge paintings.
How do you approach and think about color?
A lot of the color I use is pretty vibrant and doesn’t often occur naturally so the paintings take on this other-worldly, mystical feeling. But it’s important to me that those characteristics are consistent from painting to painting so that the world expands with each piece and remains believable.
How are you thinking about humor with your work?
I don’t think my work is necessarily “haha” funny, but for paintings depicting such foreboding themes, the mood remains pretty light. I’ve always tried to offset the ominous tones with humor, just to play with the balance and see what that creates. Also, I’ve realized that the more you work at being an artist, and the older you get in general, the more you realize that you don’t know anything. You realize your own naiveté, which also contributes to the general anxiety in the paintings, but that perspective allows me to not take myself or the work too seriously.
What are you working on right now?
Right now I’m in the process of scaling up some work that I did on paper for a group show. I enjoy working on paper because of how quickly I can get ideas down. I don’t get stuck on building up the material or the image and I can move through pieces pretty quickly and that energy becomes captured in the piece. My goal is to translate that same energy onto canvas.
What do you think makes a successful painting? How do you know when a work is done?
I think it changes from painting to painting. Different paintings are good for different reasons. For me I start to feel like a work is successful, for whatever reason, about midway or three quarters through the process. The first quarter of the process is all naive excitement. The idea is fresh and I can’t get it onto the canvas fast enough. Halfway through the work, I usually hate the painting. Problems have started to reveal themselves and I’m sick of the idea and can’t remember why I thought it was good in the first place. But eventually something clicks. It could be laying a mark next to another mark or introducing a new color. I’ll be working through it and I’ll step back and all of a sudden the trajectory of the painting is clear and I like where it’s headed. Then it’s just a matter of staying on that path.
As for deciding when a work is finished, I find that much harder. I guess a work is done when I haven’t touched it in a couple months. But even then I never know.
What’s influencing you? What you’re consuming, thinking about, or looking at?
I admittedly don’t go out and see enough art so, currently, the things I consume the most are music and podcasts. I always have headphones on. Most of the music I listen to is either rock or metal. Metal tends to be a very story driven type of music and often parallels my work in mood and subject matter. I’ve been thinking about doing a series of paintings based on imagery from Mastodon songs and maybe some other bands. Their lyrics are very illustrative and they seem to like the same things I do.
Lately, in the studio I’ve been listening to a lot of Comedy Bang Bang. I’ve sort of become addicted to it and I honestly can’t paint listening to anything else. It’s a pseudo talk radio show based heavily around improv where the host talks to people playing characters and it often gets absurd very quickly. It’s been going on for about 8 years so it’s become it’s own little self-referential world. Maybe that’s why I enjoy it so much.
How do you approach scale?
Scale has a lot to do with my resources. I went to that summer residency and I bought a ton of those really shitty, art store canvases and I ended up coming back with a lot of them. I moved into this apartment and have maybe 10 x 10 square feet to work with, so that’s partly what informs scale.
It has more to do with how developed an idea is. The smaller works are sort of a trial run. Some make it onto larger canvas, some don’t. The ones that do, I feel like I can develop further and take more risks with and they usually end up being a totally different painting.
What’s your studio practice like?
My studio practice is almost entirely a nighttime thing, which may also inform the tone and subject matter, I don’t know. But because it’s nighttime and I usually have to wake up early, I work in roughly three or four hour spurts. I don’t really spend entire days in the studio, which just means that I have a lot of time to think about the work in between painting sessions. I can come in and do something and then have another 24 hours to think about it.
How are you thinking about your work in conversation with other contemporary art happening?
I think world-building is a pretty big conversation in contemporary painting, spanning from artists I looked at when I first started painting like Kyle Staver, Nigel Cooke, and Peter Doig, to painters I see now, closer to my own age, Dan Schein, Nicasio Fernandez, Alan Prazniak, Dana Lok. The list goes on. Whether depicting small moments or epic scenes, they all create these seemingly expansive, fantastic worlds in which there’s a tone and familiarity that’s specific to each artist.