When you look at the stately Queen Lane carriage house near Knox Street in Germantown, you’d never know that there’s an old-world artist’s studio tucked away inside, where still-life arrangements await the painter and lively green landscapes line the walls. For the last 12 years, that’s how artist Ian Tornay has liked it.
Tornay’s seventh annual solo exhibition at New York’s Bowery Gallery opened earlier this month, and NewsWorks visited his studio just before this year’s set of 19 oil paintings made the trip.
Tornay began his career as an architect, but soon realized that drawing and painting are his true passions. Twenty years ago, he completed his Master of Fine Arts in Painting and now, when he’s not producing work for a wide range of group and solo exhibitions throughout Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey, he’s a professor of interior design at Delaware College of Art and Design.
A New York native who also had his own cabinet-making business, Tornay came to Philadelphia with his wife of 16 years, when her art therapy career brought her to the area.
“We moved to Germantown,” he said. “It was affordable and cool, [and] reminded me of Brooklyn a tiny bit.”
Now, the couple lives with their two kids just a block and a half away from Tornay’s studio.
With a devotion to woodworking, oil landscapes and still life, it’s not surprising that Tornay enjoys exploring creativity within the time-honored parameters of his traditional media.
“I’m kind of a low-tech guy,” he said, adding that he has little patience for cutting edge digital art mediums. “Some people, I think, place too much emphasis on what technology can do for you,” he explained. “It’s an immature artistic attitude for the most part. It’s a self-conscious desire to be different, which we all have.”
“The opposite is embracing traditions and trying to be really expressive within those traditions,” he said.
The artistic tradition is part of what the Philly transplant enjoys about the local scene, though with its smaller market, he finds it a bit more “insular” and competitive than the New York gallery landscape.
“The figurative tradition has always been strong here. It’s strong now. There are young artists who embrace it,” he said, touting an excellent teaching tradition that continues at institutions like University of the Arts, Tyler School of Art, and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
He especially admires Philadelphia artist Larry Day (1921-1998), whose 1970 painting, “Poker Game,” anchors Woodmere Art Museum’s recent exhibition, “The Poker Game and its Circle,” on view through Oct. 26.
Tornay’s upcoming show includes views of Cranberry Island, Maine, scenes of Manayunk from Belmont Hills, a Wissahickon landscape, and several still lifes.
Tornay said arranging the structure of still-life objects feeds his architectural side, but that doesn’t mean the artist should try too hard to pull it all together. As an image that is “just objects placed on a table,” still lifes are a deceptively simple form.
“To me, the dumbest things about art are the best things about art,” he said. “It’s not about trying too hard to make art.” To him, the best still lifes “evoke the complex jumble of life.” He likes to achieve this by unexpected pairings, like a shell, a hammer, a pipe and fruit all in the same painting.
That way, different areas of life co-exist to express an eclectic yet harmonious whole, with a wide range of objects “having a strange conversation.”
As with his still lifes, Tornay prefers to work directly from nature on his lush green landscapes.
“For me, it’s all about the brush stroke. I’m always looking for little surprises in terms of how things touch each other; connect with each other; flow into each other,” he said.
Ian Tornay’s seventh annual solo exhibition is open at New York City’s Bowery Gallery on 530 West 25th St. through Sept. 28. Gallery hours are Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.