Tom Harman on Painting and Critical Theory

British artist Tom Harman discusses how critical theory led him to return to painting
Tom Harman installs abstract paintings at Little Man Coffee Co., Cardiff. Photograph: Rhys Tranter.
Tom Harman installs abstract paintings at Little Man Coffee Co., Cardiff. Photograph: Rhys Tranter.

When did you start painting?

Drawing and painting, for me, was what I always did and was always good at. Throughout school I only ever wanted to paint and couldn’t wait to leave at 16 and begin a BTECH in Art and Design at my local FE college. This was a great experience, at last getting to create visual material all day, every day. I was particularly interested in painting that had some form of social commentary and was influenced by the New Glasgow Boys, painters from the Glasgow School of Art such as Steven Campbell, Peter Howson and Ken Currie, as well as the big names in British painting such as Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff, Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud.

Tom Harman. Photograph: Rhys Tranter.
Tom Harman. Photograph: Rhys Tranter.

Why was painting so important to you at that time?

Growing up in Thatcher’s and then Major’s Britain, living in the Home Counties and coming from a not very well-off background I was keenly aware of the particular mundane violence of the everyday. My teenage angst was given voice in the music that I loved from The Jam and Blur (of the Modern Life is Rubbish era) to my favourite band at the time S*M*A*S*H. At college I made a huge black and white painting, probably about 8’ x 10’, of my street and home with a zombie-like passersby stepping in dog shit, voyeurs at windows and alienated family members stuck in their roles at home. This was my jump-off point for the rest of the work I produced at college. My use of expressive figurative painting and un-naturalistic colour, I think, gave my paintings of the time a real vibrancy that people found affecting.

It was a natural progression to apply for a degree in Fine Art and specifically in painting. I was accepted at Norwich School of Art and Design, as it was called then, all those years ago, but what a step up it was. I was lucky enough to work with a group of very talented artists who certainly had a lot to teach a rather naïve boy from the suburbs. My work at the time moved towards questions of gender and sexuality and began to focus on notions of masculinity. I started producing large oil paintings (6’ x 4’) of men whose form had been distorted in some way as to only be able to compulsively repeat one action. I had paintings called ‘Give Yourself a Slap on the Back, Jack’, ‘Inside Every Fat Person is a Thin Person Trying to Get Out’ and ‘Wanker’. The idea was that social behaviour and social norms distorted the body to such a degree that it became monstrous.

Tom Harman's abstract paintings at The Little Man Coffee Co. in Cardiff. Photograph: Rhys Tranter.
Tom Harman’s abstract paintings at The Little Man Coffee Co. in Cardiff. Photograph: Rhys Tranter.

How did your interest in social norms lead to the study of critical and cultural theory?

It is probably obvious that my work was influenced by a critical engagement with the world. This led me to start researching more seriously, looking for answers to the questions that I was posing through my paintings. I began to read philosophy, psychoanalysis and critical theory, in particular Jean-François Lyotard and Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. Painting, at this time, for me seemed unable to answer the questions that were haunting me and even seemed aligned to a bourgeois culture that created or maintained the injustices that I was so interested in addressing. Finishing university and having to deal with the harsh realities of precarious employment also made me question my relationship to painting. Not to mention the expense. The world of theory seemed to promise answers to my persistent questions as well as the possibility of employment as a lecturer at a university. Hence, the rather long hiatus in painting as I pursued this new career path.

After such a hiatus, what was it that led you back to painting?

I now have my doctorate and have taught at Cardiff University as a part-time lecturer leading courses on Visual Culture, Reading and Identity and Alfred Hitchcock. Many of the questions that I had I have now answered for myself and feel that undertaking the PhD has given me privileged time to think through many complex ideas. I do, however, feel that the critical project, especially for myself, is limited and can easily lead to some well-meaning navel-gazing. What is needed, alliteration aside, is a positive, productive and public engagement with something, whatever that may be, that you believe in, in order to lead a happy and fulfilled working life. Which has, strangely, brought me back to painting but from a wholly different perspective. Painting has become precisely this for me. I have lost my negativity and approach painting now as a form of experimentation and affirmation. It is a form of engaged play that is not bound to expressing a defined meaning but articulates only what paint can: the capturing of individual movements of liquid colour across a surface that, by some form of alchemy, miraculously move the viewer.

Tom Harman's abstract paintings are on display at The Little Man Coffee Co., Cardiff, through March 2017.
Tom Harman’s abstract paintings are on display at The Little Man Coffee Co., Cardiff, through March 2017.

How has your new approach impacted on your recent abstract work?

The latest series of abstract paintings that are displayed at Little Man Coffee Co. this month are precisely evidence of this approach to painting. Each of the paintings constitute an ongoing experimentation with elements of formalism. I have given myself a particular format, the 10” x 8” x 1.5” Ampersand boards, and an initial structure of horizontal stripes that create the foundation of my experimentation with colour combinations and painterly applications. Colours are chosen arbitrarily according to combinations I think may be interesting or work well together. This sets up the initial problem which I will try to resolve through the course of completing the painting.

While the paintings may be formal, their resolution always involves working with and through the connotations that arise from and are set-off by the painting. By using the horizontal format for the stripes, landscapes and vertical surfaces are almost always implied which arouse memory traces and emotional responses. By working through these responses the surface of the painting becomes like a palimpsest, recording the build-up of marks but also a depth in time and a call to, not only close observation but inward reflection in the viewer. The parenthetical titles of the paintings therefore indicate, to some degree, the connotations that the painting has awoken in me. They are not meant to be an answer to the meaning of the painting, then, but a poetic call to the viewers own experience.

What’s next for you?

I aim in the future to continue experimenting with paint and hopefully making more paintings that will have that unknown something that can make witnessing a painting such a powerful experience. This convoluted journey has, in some way, brought me back to the original enjoyment that I felt when first making art.

A series of Tom Harman’s abstract paintings are on display through March 2017 at The Little Man Coffee Co. in Cardiff.

About the Artist

Tom Harman currently lives and works in Cardiff. You can follow his work on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook or at his blog:


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