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Narrative portrait artist Zachary Thornton has 'Night Vision'

Parkville artist Zachary Thornton sold out a show of his paintings in Rome in one day. They liked him in Berlin and Malaga, Spain, too.

Now, Baltimore is also getting to know a talented native son.

His 10-painting show "Night Vision" has proven so popular at the C. Grimaldis Gallery, in Mount Vernon, that it has been extended to the end of March.

"It's amazing to have a solo show in my home town," Thornton said.

Jeremy Stern, associate director of the gallery, said the exhibition is pulling them in.

"We've had a strong reaction from the local viewing public. It's bringing a lot of people to the gallery," he said.

What strikes viewers first about the "Night Vision" paintings is the singular subject matter — each one depicts a woman, possibly alone or possibly with someone unseen, outdoors at night.

Thornton said he first employed the "Night Vision" theme in 2005. He also paints abstracts and landscapes, he said, but he keeps returning to the women in the dark.

"I really like working within a narrow focus," he said. "It's like a tiny speck you explore infinitely."

His work is attracting attention in the artistic community. Craig Hankin, the director of the Homewood Arts Workshop at Johns Hopkins University, attended the show's opening in January.

"Zach's paintings pack a double wallop for me. They're highly cinematic, brimming with narrative possibilities. What's going on here? Who is this woman? Why is she alone on that dark street?"

He also credits the painter's "technical brilliance," which he said appears at first glance to be almost photo-realistic.

"But when you come in for a closer look, they enchant you with subtle, painterly touches. I've taught painting for 30 years and I still can't figure out how he creates some of these effects. This is a young painter at the beginning of what promises to be a remarkable artistic journey," Hankin said.

The "cinematic" description is apt. Thornton cites as an influence the films of David Lynch, whose movies frequently feature sinister doings beneath a placid surface.

"The light versus the dark — which is the real side? I like taking ordinary scenarios and turning them into something much more provocative," he said.

Thornton works from photographs he takes himself. The models in the paintings are friends. The settings are from photos he takes at night in neighborhoods such as Stoneleigh and Roland Park.

"I go out at night and creep around, taking pictures of people's houses," he said with a laugh.

The 32-year-old artist's studio is the garage next to the house in Parkville he shares with his wife, Erin Fostel, also an artist. He said it takes about a month to complete a painting, but that sometimes he has more than one on an easel at the same time.

The prices of his paintings range from four to five figures. Still, he said, it's not quite a windfall when he sells one. The gallery takes half, he said, and other expenses pile up, especially for an out-of-town show.

Also, he has his canvases custom-made with multiple layers of canvas to achieve the effects he seeks, especially the quality of blackness.

'Suburban hyper-voyeur noir master'

Thornton may have creativity in his blood — his father was a musician and his mother an actress — but it was when he attended Calvert Hall College High School that he met someone who changed his life. That would be art teacher Victor Janishefski, known to students as "Mr. J."

"He's an indelible personality," Thornton said about his high school teacher. "He is the hardest, most brutal teacher I ever had in my life. His expectations were really high."

After graduating from Calvert Hall in 1997, he went on to the Maryland Institute, College of Art, earning a bachelor's degree in fine arts in 2001. He first exhibited his work in 2002, in Baltimore.

In 2005, he won a Maryland State Art Council Grant and, the following year, a Baltimore City Individual Artist Grant.

Art blogger Ann Clark calls Thornton a "suburban hyper-voyeur noir master."

"Of course, impossible to ignore from the outset, is the gaze of the male artist — Thornton exclusively chooses women in the suburban environment for his subject matter. It's sort of irrelevant, though, that his nubile femmes sometimes avert this gaze, sometimes submit, as they alternately eye the viewer with dispassion from the snugness of their evening gowns, and fret at their predicament ... after all, what are they doing out alone at night?" Clark wrote.

Thornton agrees there's a "noir," or dark, element in what he does that often suggests a narrative.

"It's almost like a film still," he said.

Thornton's work has appeared in galleries in New York and Los Angeles, as well as cities in Europe, and he is especially proud to have been part of the New American Paintings juried exhibits in 2006 and 2009.

Though he occasionally gives private lessons, painting is his living now.

He said he once imitated the style of John Singer Sargent, the famous American portrait artist, but has moved into his own style of creating what he calls "mysterious tableaux."

As he noted on his website, "I wish for the paintings to go beyond (or beneath) the surface drama of the scenes to reveal, in half-lit moments, a private realm of experience."

C. Grimaldis Gallery is located at 523 N. Charles St., Baltimore. For hours, call 410-539-1080. Go to: http://www.zacharythornton.com.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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