Ohio Bell, 1995, Tobin Sprout, 34"x44", oil on canvas

The Impermanence of Everything: “Ohio Bell” Is History

Forever Reinvention
The buyer of Ohio Bell acquires one of the few remaining Sprout paintings among the exceptional company of Sprout’s oversize photorealism. Works like “Osterizer,” “Fifth Street,” “Mixmaster,” “Motel Dairy Bar,” “Car Dashboard,” “Doors of the Victoria,” “Wympee Burger,” and the very early (noir/expressionist) “Telephone Booth,” are shining examples of photorealism that together define this period of Sprout’s painting in the tradition of Richard Estes, America’s undisputed contemporary master of the genre.

Sprout’s preservationist spirit perfectly foreshadowed the shocking impermanence of this particular modern fixture built to last decades: The telephone booth console and handset.

In less than ten years, the ubiquitous pay phone has nearly disappeared from our landscape. Sprout’s painting is a tremendous monument to this very recent, and very distant, past.

The Bell System Logo 1969

The Bell System Logo, 1969

Sprout’s passion to render and record these artifacts of our shared cultural history in their time, for future generations to ponder and contemplate, could not be more in evidence with “Ohio Bell.” Nearly everything about this painting is literally history: The various state-identified Bell Telephone System entities; a permanent, steel-encased box to safeguard the critical activity of phone communication from the random physical eruptions of modern street life; the use of coins in exchange for any service; a modern communications technology that uses only copper wires; and, along with the telephone booth, a giant space allocated for the all-important personal and professional exchanges on a telephone call.

How prescient that already, just over 20 years after “Ohio Bell” was painted, we can look at this painting and wonder at all the labor intensive steps; all the design, construction, and in today’s smartphones, deconstruction, that has brought us to this point in human history.

The radical, lightning-fast transformation from this object to the one in your pocket makes anyone wonder what is coming next; and how we’ve come so far, so fast.

Investment Outlook
In the crowded field of photorealism, few painters stand out to the degree Sprout does in terms of approach, execution, and subject choice. Sprout is among the best in the history of the genre. It is our conservative assessment that Sprout’s “Superchrome” works are listed well below near-future market value.

Ohio Bell presents an excellent prospect for long-term investors as both Sprout’s painting reputation is becoming widespread right now and the notoriety/following of the band Guided by Voices and Tobin Sprout’s solo career continue to gain cultural relevance in a way few bands or fine art painters ever do. Sprout’s long-term cultural relevance and appeal come through in the June 2018 interview with long-time Sprout fine art collector actor Tim Allen.

Additionally, the scarcity of supply of Sprout’s Superchromes makes the purchase of these paintings a rare opportunity in itself. This is literally one of 4 of these paintings remaining on the market. The balance of approximately 50 works have long since made homes in numerous permanent collections.  This is a top rated fine art investment.

For the Collector
Collection of the artist, framed. Transaction and safe passage handled directly by the studio of the artist. To discuss the work or place an order, please call the painter’s studio at (231) 534-4139.

Full documentation including Letter of Provenance provided by Flood Content & Fine Art independently. Claim your beautiful and unique take on US cultural history, along with a signature work from an outstanding series of Tobin Sprout paintings with Ohio Bell.

Ohio Bell, 1995, Tobin Sprout, 44"x34", oil on canvas, $10,500

Ohio Bell, 1995, Tobin Sprout, 34 x 44 inches, oil on canvas, $10,500

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Original analysis by T.R. Brogunier, posted June 19, 2018. 

The Tobin Sprout Blog and Flood Content & Fine Art website are written and produced by Flood Content, a digital marketing agency based in Asheville, North Carolina. Flood makes exceptional fine art accessible to individuals and families who believe original artwork has the unique capacity to transform how we see the world.

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Fifth Street, 1993, Tobin Sprout, American b. 1955, 42 x 32 inches, oil on canvas, $9,800

Carefully Described Terrain, Part 3 of 3: Now Leaving Modernism

Off-Screen Drama
Now that the scene has been set and the lighting tweaked to perfection, we can see there are actually two players in this drama. We see a feminine shadow cast from the window above the fire hydrant and a masculine shadow cast from the elevated street light.

Continued from “Carefully Described Terrain, Sprout’s Fifth Street – Part 1 of 3: The Billboard,” and “Part 2 of 3: Shifting Light.” 

The masculine figure appears to be headed in the direction of the woman, and the implication in the painting is the woman is standing in line with the window (making her shadow casts all the way to the street), which means she is likely looking straight out toward the approaching figure.

The lighting in the scene has a mysterious, somewhat threatening feel. Given that the scene fits snuggly into the classic noir aesthetic from the 1930s – 1960s, an implied night meeting can mean a hundred things. The genre itself is crafted on the inhuman capabilities of desperate people, so most of them are alarming. If the male/female interaction is a romantic tryst, it’s happening in atmosphere of adversity.

The painting is a place for the human characters to hide in. And the fact these characters are off-screen, so to speak, leaves the interpretation of what is happening open to the viewer.

Given some time with this painting, viewers would likely come up with a diversity about what they think is going on between the characters. Again, much like the genre Fifth Street is playing off of, psychological projection is a key element, allowing the viewer to bring their own unconscious associations to the work.

The Cultural Transition To Postmodernism
When this painting was made in Dayton, Ohio in 1993, traditional academic curricula at college institutions was in upheaval. Modernist texts by canonized white males were being supplanted by new voices from a diversity of backgrounds previously marginalized or shut out of the Western world’s cultural conversation.

This was the beginning of a major shift for American culture as a whole. The iconic notion of Western progress key to the modern era’s identity began being questioned in a widespread way in the 1960s.

By the 1980s and 1990s, government and academic institutions began acting on the idea that the unquestioned linear march of modern culture might have some flaws. From the inherent good of time-saving convenience in processed and fast food to changing academic voices to questioning smoking as a sign of sophistication, the post-Reagan 1990s were a time of deep contextualization of major cultural assumptions held true for most of the 20th Century. 

Fifth Street captures this subtle, but abrupt transition. The noir look is a ‘high modern’ style, with a garish billboard fitting any major urban landscape of the 20th Century. However, this billboard has one telling distinction: While itself being a large, brash Modern City advertisement, the billboard also features an equally prominent, stark “anti-ad” subverting it’s own message and contextualizing the product it is selling. 

The anti-ad on the billboard in Sprout's "Fifth Street" hints at a new era of contextualization for the previously infallible good of the Modern era.

The prominent anti-ad on the billboard in Sprout’s 1993 “Fifth Street” hints at a new era of contextualization for the previously infallible good of the Modern era.

 

The WARNING in Sprout's "Fifth Street" occupies about the same relative spaces in the painting as the sign advertising "5¢ Phillies No. 1 American" in Hopper's "Nighthawks," which is confident, subtle and even classy, lacking any self-doubt. (Image enhanced for legibility.)

“Only 5¢ Phillies American No.1” roof mounted sign in Hopper’s “Nighthawks,” occupies about the same relative image area as Sprout’s “Warning,” but is confident, subtle and even classy, lacking any self-doubt. (Detail of “Nighthawks” enhanced for legibility.)

Fifth Street is a perfect painting of that fracture. Sprout’s dedication to realism gives us a historically accurate bookmark in time. Ironically, the most common negative feedback I’ve gotten about Fifth Street from potential buyers is that they, “Don’t like the cigarette ad.” People don’t want to live with it on their wall. I get that.

But on another level, this particular cigarette ad shows society finding a path beyond an entrenched fixture of modernism that is indeed harmful. The WARNING shows we live in a society interested in evolving past harmful cultural norms, which is quite the opposite of the Hopper painting’s confident, unselfconsicous, even classy plug for Phillies Cigars, fixed to the roof of the diner. The confidence in the Cambridge ad is a lot more contrived: Flag stripes and fetishized cigarettes.

The Cambridge billboard is the perfect capture of the American transition from a Modern to Postmodern culture. Fifth Street is like a gate we pass through on the historical path Western society has taken in the relatively short timeline of industrial society, still less than 200 years. This is the moment in American history when the questioning of Modernity’s inherent good becomes institutionalized. It shows our culture beginning to ingest and deal with the flaws of long held assumptions related to a Modern orthodoxy that ‘what is good for manufacturing and economic expansion is good for people.’

Questions Are Good, But They Aren’t Answers
Postmodernism, as the name implies – and as I understand it – doesn’t really have answers. It’s founded on the importance of having ‘anti-answers’ to bad ideas. Postmodernism is the teenager of historical time-periods, defined by a rejection of that which spawned it. But anti-answers lack unification and sovereignty. It’s more about taking stuff apart. Postmodernism exposes the flaws in Modernism, deconstructs it, and replaces it with nothing iconic.

The Postmodern context is the unresolved cultural purgatory we live in to this day. The fracturing of American identity has turned a ‘God, Country and Prosperity’ society of post-WW II American cultural preeminence, exuberance, and seeming inconquerability into a multitude of tribes and subcultures. Grand, unifying ideas have crumbled under the cultural mandate that all things are equivalent.

Even the notion of merit, value or quality in art or thinking has become a matter of nearly pathological relativity. Nothing, it seems, can be assessed, evaluated or judged, because no agreed upon standard of merit, value or meaning exists.

When I was in college, my peers illustrated this radical shift, first anticipated by French philosophers,  by earnestly reading cereal box ingredients as poetry and challenging anyone to explain why John Milton’s Paradise Lost had any more value. Postmodernism is the total embrace of  the subjective perspective.

In fact, it seems Postmodernism’s only absolute is the idea that “everything is subjective.” In the strictest interpretation of Postmodernism, ideas like “Western cultural heritage” don’t have inherent, or even provable, value. Postmodern cultural value is constructed ad hoc as it emerges from the stories of the cultures previously locked out of the discussion.

As the giant of our big American ideas have given in to the new law of social equivalence, so has our social cohesion. Everyone has equally retreated into their subcultures that perfectly mirror their values and ideas, tastes and beliefs. Postmodernism puts us all in our chosen cultural encampments, our ‘bubbles,’ our algorithm realities.

As our culture goes further into this anti-world, we may discover that the idea that the only social and cultural absolute is that ‘nothing is better or worse than anything else’ has itself created a cultural tyranny, tearing away the tools we use for discernment of value and meaning of any experience or institution we share as a people.

We live in an era defined by the fact a central unifying cultural theme has yet to coalesce into a cultural movement. That is ‘postmodernism.’ That is the reality of living in a culture that spends millions to sell cigarettes and mandates they be negated in the same breath. Where all this is headed, I don’t know, but Fifth Street is literally the sign along the road, telling us the true nature of the direction we are going, and it’s not an easy path.

 

Fifth Street, 1993, Tobin Sprout, American b. 1955, 42 x 32 inches, oil on canvas

Fifth Street, 1993, Tobin Sprout, American b. 1955, 42 x 32 inches, oil on canvas, $9,800

 

Original analysis by T.R. Brogunier, posted April 8, 2018. Parts I and II published in March.

The Flood Content & Fine Art website is written and produced by Flood Content, a digital marketing agency based in Asheville, North Carolina. Flood makes exceptional fine art accessible to individuals and families who believe original artwork has the unique capacity to transform how we see the world. 

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Fifth Street, 1993, Tobin Sprout, American b. 1955, 42 x 32 inches, oil on canvas

Carefully Described Terrain, Part 2 of 3: Shifting Light

The second indication that Sprout isn’t making ‘a pretty picture,’ comes from the dominant light in Fifth Street. The majority of the lighting in this painting comes from the reflected ‘remnant’ light bounced off the billboard and spilling onto the sidewalk.

Continued from “Carefully Described Terrain, Sprout’s Fifth Street – Part 1 of 3,” published March 17, 2018

NATURAL LIGHT DOMINATES PAINTING
A painter uses vision to see the scene, so everything a painter puts into a scene is also the result of light. Light is the most basic element used to construct an image, and Fifth Street meticulously details the character of the scene’s light.

Throughout the history of modern art, from the Renaissance on, light has been used as primary tool to describe depth and space. Most often, even to this day in photography, the light of choice – what is considered ‘the best’ light – are the many varieties of daylight.

Vermeer’s portraits use the diffusion of reflected Dutch ‘Northern Light,’ with all its refinement and detail to fill shadows full of detail. 

Vermeer, "The Milkmaid," ~1658 is a perfect example of diffused Northern light typical of Dutch renaissance painting.

Vermeer, “The Milkmaid,” ~1658 is a perfect example of diffused Northern light typical of Dutch renaissance painting.

Sprout also masterfully paints his landmark still life “Osterizer, 1993” in what looks like a scene bathed in similar, if brighter, indirect light. 

Osterizer, 1993 by Tobin Sprout, 60x40 inches, oil on canvas

Osterizer, 1993 by Tobin Sprout, 60×40 inches, oil on canvas

Further south in Italy during the Renaissance, scenes and portraits were painted with stronger sunlight. In so many ways, from the Renaissance to contemporary photography, sunlight, in its various incarnations, has been the singular standard of quality for serious makers of images in the Western world. It is considered the highest quality light.

In Virgin and Child by Italian painter Cima da Congegliano below, the modeling of the sunlight on the subjects looks nearly identical to a Profoto photography portrait with light diffusion modifications in 2018.

Natural light is king is Western art. 

Cima da Congegliano, Virgin and Child, oil on board, about 1500. Museum of Wales, England

Virgin and Child, Cima da Congegliano, oil on board, about 1500. Museum of Wales, England

 

PRETTY? NAH.
But in Fifth Street, Sprout is painting a scene devoid of sunlight, the well-spring of dimensionality and quality. Instead, he chooses a scene full of what is considered ‘ugly’ light, the leftover light of a 20th Century American city.

Obviously Sprout is adept at rendering with various types of sunlight – particularly indirect sunlight, but he’s also got a serious knack for doing light in general. He’s just choosing something different.

Fifth Street, 1993, Tobin Sprout, American b. 1955, 42 x 32 inches, oil on canvas

Fifth Street, 1993, Tobin Sprout, American b. 1955, 42 x 32 inches, oil on canvas

What makes the light in Fifth Street great isn’t just that it’s impressively rendered, but how precisely “true” the light is to the night time urban experience.

 

“TOTO, I’VE A FEELING WE’RE NOT IN KANSAS ANY MORE.”
A major part of the story of the 20th Century is a that millions of people moving to cities shifted from a ‘default natural light’ country setting to a ‘default artificial light’ city setting. One of the 20th Century’s best painters of light and chroniclers of this cultural shift is Edward Hopper. If Sprout’s Fifth Street references any painter, aside from his own work on paintings like Phone Booth, it’s Edward Hopper.

And if Sprout’s referencing any one Hopper painting, it’s The Art Institute of Chicago’s Nighthawks.

Nighthawks, 1942, Edward Hopper, Collection of The Art Institute of Chicago

Nighthawks, 1942, Edward Hopper, Collection of The Art Institute of Chicago

Nighthawks is a painting famous not only on its own merits, but also for the send ups this scene has inspired, most famously featuring Humphrey Bogart, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe with Elvis serving behind the diner counter.

Boulevard of Broken Dreams, 1985, Gottfried Helnwein

Boulevard of Broken Dreams, 1985, Gottfried Helnwein, Collection of “20 Somethings Everywhere”

The nature of how fluorescent lighting describes its surroundings is a significant part of Nighthawks, a portrait of a different unremarkable city corner in New York City. Fluorescence have a kind of aggressively non-descript light that wraps around subjects in a way that makes them look flat and deflated. Both Nighthawks and Fifth Street attack this unique characteristic of fluorescent light head on, to great effect.

The fluorescent light in Hopper’s Nighthawks shows overlapping shadows just outside the windows, (fig. 1) as it is cast on the street. To show variety and contrasting types of light, Hopper paints the much sharper, more defined lines of light and shadow coming from a bright streetlight casting illumination from outside the frame from the left of the image (fig. 2).

Detail of Fluorescent Shadows, Nighthawks, 1942, Edward Hopper

Fig 1. Detail of Fluorescent Shadows, Nighthawks, 1942, Edward Hopper

Detail of Streetlight Shadows, Nighthawks, 1942, Edward Hopper

Fig. 2. Detail of Streetlight Shadows, Nighthawks, 1942, Edward Hopper

Sprout defines the character of fluorescent light in his Fifth Street with a sharp, almost fake looking, shadow slicing the fire hydrant completely in half (fig. 3a) while casting a blunt shadow characteristic of a light source coming from a broad, rather than singular, area. The light also has a kind of uneasy feeling smoothing over of the uneven concrete abutting the choppy wall where the billboard is mounted (fig. 3b).

Fluorescent Light Detail, Fifth Street, 1993, Tobin Sprout

Fig. 3a. Fluorescent Light Detail, Fifth Street, 1993, Tobin Sprout

Fluorescent Light Detail, Fifth Street, 1993, Tobin Sprout

Fig. 3b, Fluorescent Light Detail, Fifth Street, 1993, Tobin Sprout

Even the uneveness of the concrete is a near perfect description of the location as this present-day photograph provided by Dayton resident and Tobin Sprout painting fan Sean Merkle shows. The strange upheaval of the concrete creating a kind of wavy line where it abutts the wall of the building is still a match, 25 years later.

Current photo of corner portrayed in Fifth Street. Courtesy of Sean Merkle, 2018.

Detail, current photo of corner portrayed in Fifth Street. Courtesy of Sean Merkle, 2018. Notice how accurately the uneven concrete is portrayed.

Sprout also mixes a variety of light into his ambient night lighting painting. Two windows show the incandescent bulb lighting we associate with home interiors. The primary interior lighting is directly above the billboard where we see a clock, wallpaper and and a thin curtain blowing (fig. 4).

Detail of illuminated window, Fifth Street, 1993, Tobin Sprout

Fig. 4, Detail of illuminated window, Fifth Street, 1993, Tobin Sprout

The second interior light shows a lone window across Fifth Street illuminating a refrigerator (fig. 5).

Detail of illuminated window, Fifth Street, 1993, Tobin Sprout

Fig. 5, Detail of illuminated window, Fifth Street, 1993, Tobin Sprout

The final mix comes from the left of the painting where Sprout has included his own streetlight illumination and shadows into the mix of exterior, night, urban lighting. We see the clearly defined shadow of the streetlight poll running up the parapet on the far side of the street (fig. 6), very much like the well-defined shadows in the background of Hopper’s Nighthawks.

Fig. 6, Streetlight shadow detail, Fifth Street, 1993, Tobin Sprout

Fig. 6, Streetlight shadow detail, Fifth Street, 1993, Tobin Sprout

The purposeful rendering of all these types of light makes Fifth Street ‘true to life.’ It is by this truth achieved through diligent rendering that we ‘believe’ the scene. Fifth Street is accurate according to what we understand subconsciously from our personal experience and cultural understanding of this scene.

Sprout’s attention to detail allows what is common to become universal. We are not forced to suspend disbelief as we are in a work of fiction with too many plot holes.

The stage is portrayed accurately to allow everything else the painting has to offer: The art historical references. The cultural shifts. The latent human drama.

 

Original analysis by T.R. Brogunier, posted March 25, 2018. Originally scheduled for posting March 23, this essay was delayed from publishing for two days.

The Flood Content & Fine Art website is written and produced by Flood Content, a digital marketing agency based in Asheville, North Carolina. Flood makes exceptional fine art accessible to individuals and families who believe original artwork has the unique capacity to transform how we see the world. 

CAREFULLY DESCRIBED TERRAIN, PART III
Join Flood here next Thursday, March 29, for the third and final installment of this three part essay on yet another remarkable Tobin Sprout painting from 1993.

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“Fifth Street,” 1993, Tobin Sprout, American b. 1955, 42 x 32 inches, oil on canvas

Carefully Described Terrain: Sprout’s Fifth Street – Part 1 of 3: The Billboard

"Fifth Street," 1993, Tobin Sprout, American b. 1955, 42 x 32 inches, oil on canvas

“Fifth Street,” 1993, Tobin Sprout, American b. 1955, 42 x 32 inches, oil on canvas

For a painting that seems, at first glance, empty, Fifth Street is loaded with ideas. This dramatic noir streetscape from Tobin Sprout’s early 90’s sprint into large Photorealism has just been listed for sale, for the first time, online.

In the profession of journalism, it is said that the most important part of the story is the part that isn’t being reported. It seems like the initial report Sprout is giving the viewer in Fifth Street is much like an initial media report of a major incident: A very accurate description of not-the-story.

While Fifth Street does a great job describing what is visible to the eye, a precise description that renders a familiar feeling scene, the apparent normalcy of the scene obscures nearly every key element of the work.

Once again, Sprout is using the cover of realism to disguise the story, or maybe just wrap it in layers. It’s a painting of a street corner, so what? Much like his other Photorealistic work, it’s the deliberateness of Sprout’s choices and execution that gives us clues to why he’s going to all this trouble to render this street corner so precisely.

THE BILLBOARD IS KEY TO MAJOR THEMES
The massive, street-level billboard that’s advertising discount brand cigarettes is an obvious artistic choice, and a good one to look at first. The unique positioning of the billboard at street-level, combined with strong receding lines creates a sense of depth. Without these lines and this billboard, the painting would feel a lot more flat. Visually for the painting, it’s clearly a compositional anchor.

But this visual anchor also happens to be ‘ugly.’ This billboard is not attempting to win any beauty contests. Its primary image is a giant oversized cigarette. It’s what my mother would call ‘hideous.’ Already, we’ve made it one step closer to discovering Sprout’s modus operandi in this painting: He’s not in this to make a ‘pretty picture.’

ON THE CONSTANT OFFENSIVE
The cultural aspect of the billboard could not be more important to the story of the painting. The buildings themselves have a character that feels low-rise, mid-century, inner-city American but, stripped of the inappropriately placed billboard (and the fire hydrant), the streetscape could also depict low-rise, mid-century, inner-city Bucharest, Romania.

The flag’s red and white striped theme evoking the U.S. flag is no accident of commercial art either. It’s a compelling, patriotic image dreamed up by the manipulating minds over at the ad agency with the Cambridge cigarettes account to sell maximum cigarettes through maximum psychological leverage.

For the viewer of the painting, the presence of this billboard is also, literally, the presence of American culture in an otherwise undefined landscape.

Putting a visual meant to be viewed at a distance of at least 100 yards and an elevation of at least 25 feet at eye level on a wall abutting a sidewalk is a kind of an f-u to the humans who are subjected to it day in and day out.

More likely, it’s an unintentional outcome of the callous disregard for human tranquility built in to advertising culture as it is traditionally practiced in the United States.

The Cambridge billboard pictured in Fifth Street is a perfect example of how advertising culture can inadvertently control and dominate the physical and psychological environment, and define the environment as uniquely American – even in its ‘wrongness.’ Making the Cambridge billboard a singular, anchoring element in the painting shows the painter making an interesting observation about a somewhat outrageous cultural norm.

Also noteworthy is the transience of the cigarette brand itself. The billboard projects brash confidence, the veneer of success America loves, or maybe just requires from everything. But the discount brand is like any other upstart, presenting its case as best it can, while striving for permanence and greatness in the marketplace worthy of the Marlboros, Lucky Strikes and Camels. Isn’t this the reality of the world we all live in? This striving reflects a universal truth about life in America.

Today, it’s the Instagram influencer with a 100,000 followers who just wants to be, and can never be, the cultural force known as Beyonce or Kanye. 

The commercial imperative of the billboard even inadvertently provides the dominant light for the scene. The overlit fluorescent light, exclusively dedicated to illuminating the billboard, is shown carelessly creating large areas of visual glare that overexpose the advertisement itself.

Like vision, painting depends on light. The primary lighting of Fifth Street is actually made from the remnants of billboard light. Using this leftover light to make the painting is another nod to our conscious or unconscious immersion in, and our willing or unwilling dependence upon, the commercial environment.

"Fifth Street," 1993, Tobin Sprout, American b. 1955, 42 x 32 inches, oil on canvas

“Fifth Street,” 1993, Tobin Sprout, American b. 1955, 42 x 32 inches, oil on canvas

CAREFULLY DESCRIBED TERRAIN, PART II AND PART III
The environment created in the image of the billboard sets the stage for the drama of collective and individual memory. In the next two essays, I’ll be examining the nature of the light in Fifth Street, and the human drama in the scene. Join us here again the following two Thursdays, March 22 and March 29, for an extended analysis of yet another remarkable Tobin Sprout painting from 1993.

To receive notification by email, subscribe to Inventory Journal, Flood Content & Fine Art’s periodic notification channel for good work under the microscope and for sale. To learn more about the company, check out our Benchmarks. To inquire about buying Fifth Street, please visit the About Page on this website.

Original analysis by T.R. Brogunier, posted March 17, 2018.

The Flood Content & Fine Art website is written and produced by Flood Content, a digital marketing agency based in Asheville, North Carolina. Flood makes exceptional fine art accessible to individuals and families who believe original artwork has the unique capacity to transform how we see the world. 

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"Osterizer," Tobin Sprout, 1993, 40"x60", oil on canvas

The Unexpected Beauty Of A Well-Made Blender

“Who’s going to pay attention to a juicer or a ketchup bottle unless you make it into art?”
– Tobin Sprout

Richard Estes, the American pioneer of the genre of Photorealism in fine art painting, captured the intense beauty of the everyday in a way no one had before him. Yet what he chose to paint and how he decided to paint it were as much a factor in his work as his technique.

Unlike Norman Rockwell who painted realistic scenes, usually featuring groups of people, for the Saturday Evening Post from 1916-1963, Estes took Realism on a new tangent. Pop Art’s exaltation of everyday objects, an aesthetic being pioneered by Andy Warhol around the same time, partially informed the new style of realism. But instead of objects, Estes’ paintings made the dramatic physical transformation of the post-war environment the protagonist of the story.

To emphasize the importance he saw in these otherwise mundane scenes, Estes, like many of his contemporaries (such as Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline working in Abstract Expressionism), expanded the physical presence of his work to a monumental scale.

Telephone Booths, Richard Estes, 1967, acrylic on masonite,

“Telephone Booths,” Richard Estes, 1967, 69″x48″, acrylic on masonite. Collection of Museo Thyssen, Spain.

One of the most cited works in Estes’ early career is “Telephone Booth,” 1967. An elaborate study of repetition, industrial design, and urban space/crowding, this painting is deep meditation on how human life fits into the constructed urban world of the mid-20th Century – and how that veneer shrouds human activity.

The brushwork and design in this detail of “Telephone Booth” is loaded with independent themes and areas of interest. The technique has so many operational colors, styles and ideas – including an abundance of chrome – it’s hard to imagine how the painter accomplishes the overall effect taken in at a distance.

Detail, "Telephone Booths," Richard Estes, 1967

Detail, “Telephone Booths,” Richard Estes, 1967

Now consider this as a challenge for an artist: Work in the same medium and style as one of the most celebrated mid-century American painters – and still claim your own voice; your own space; and even bring your own signature techniques to a genre. One American painter still working today manages to pull this off.

II.
In the realm of fine art painting, Tobin Sprout’s technique of rendering the beauty of chrome, distortion, and reflection borrows from Estes, but he takes it in a direction that is entirely his own, and much more personal. Sprout’s paintings began to exist inside the chrome, almost like a refuge. When Sprout hit his stride in the 1990’s, he was making monumental works that predominantly incorporated chrome elements, from pay phones, to kettles, to juicers.

"Car Dashboard," 1998, Tobin Sprout, oil on canvas

“Car Dashboard,” 2000 by Tobin Sprout, 56″ x 36″, oil on canvas. Commissioned from the set of “Home Improvement.” Courtesy of Tim Allen.

 

Detail, "Car Dashboard," 1998, Tobin Sprout, oil on canvas

Detail, “Car Dashboard,” 2000, Tobin Sprout, oil on canvas

This is a stunning painting of a classic car dashboard with grids of chrome detail set off by the darkness of the dash. Perspective rendering of the odometer numbers and the chrome highlights standing out against a deeply rich background make this an over-the-top work of realistic painting. Between detail, perspective, reflection, complexity of composition and light – a lot of it, this is a painting that challenges the viewer to figure out how it was executed.

"Ohio Bell" by Tobin Sprout, 1990s

“Ohio Bell” by Tobin Sprout, 1990s. Photo from www.esquizoativo.wordpress.com 

Sprout’s obsession with, and total mastery of, the visual effect of chrome (what I call ‘Superchrome’) became a recurring theme in his paintings of the 1990’s, concurrent with the success of his band, Guided By Voices. Among these, “Tea Kettle”, “Percolator,” and “Ohio Bell” all feature huge areas of chrome reflection. And with the exception of “Ohio Bell,” which is presumably outdoors, every one of these chrome studies are also studies of the interior spaces captured by and visualized through the distortion of the reflection.

"Tea Kettle" by Tobin Sprout, 1990s

“Tea Kettle” by Tobin Sprout, 1990’s

Sprout’s last available oversize painting from the Superchrome era literally explores the world from inside the reflection of a blender. “Osterizer” takes the personal space of the reflection to a new level with a portrait of the artist and his soon to be wife, Laura. The painting is about how the objects we keep capture not just our style, but also part of the essential experience of our lives as Americans.

"Osterizer," Tobin Sprout, 1993, 40"x60", oil on canvas

“Osterizer,” Tobin Sprout, 1993, 40″x60″, oil on canvas

 

Detail from "Osterizer," Tobin Sprout, 1993, 40"x60", oil on canvas

Detail from “Osterizer,” Tobin Sprout, 1993, 40″x60″, oil on canvas

While Estes offers insights across his career from the perspective of an almost universally detached observer, Sprout takes the opportunity in Photorealism to examine how these objects interpret his own life, and by extension, interpret us as a people.

Sprout says about the everyday objects he chose to paint that, “They weren’t just functional, they were something worthy of respect.” He loves the design and he loves that something seemingly so cold and mechanical has been so lovingly crafted. And to make his trust in this love all the more explicit, he paints himself and the love of his life right into the world of the machine. “Osterizer” is an homage to how the constructed world around us interprets and changes us.

With a retro-Art Deco mug, Land-O-Lakes mug, and miniature retro television all hanging out on a formica table circa 1965, the still-life Sprout has chosen is a 20th Century time travel mash-up – a true end of the century retrospective. The painting is an homage to homages of by-gone American styles. Even the blender, likely available new in the 1990s as it probably is today, is stylistically a 1950’s and 1960’s appliance design. But somehow it is quite clearly from its own time period, perhaps in the offhand way the retro-designs in the painting have become novelty toys.

Even the most organic element of the painting, the ripe banana in the bottom right is stamped with the Chiquita sticker, which is only visible in the reflected world.

The unexpected gift of a well-made blender is that millions of Americans have lived a shared experience made possible not just by the companies who sold it, but by the collective effort of every designer and industrial manufacturer who clocked a lifetime of work to make this, and other, uniquely American experiences possible. This careful look by Sprout tells us a lot about our culture.

As the opening quote suggests: This is something we would never see if he never chose to make it art.

It is an American contradiction that a large part of what brings us together as a people is mass produced. These are the hallmarks of what it has meant to be from the United States for over a hundred years. Sprout shows us that there is something to take heart in where others see infertile ground among the strange, distorting, mass produced world of American things. The original impetus to make the Osterizer was commercial success, but the shared cultural experience that results is something Sprout wants us to recognize and celebrate together.

November 18, 2017
T.R. Brogunier

Originally posted December 5, 2017

One of my favorite painters plays really amazing music” and the Tobin Sprout Blog are produced by Flood Content, a digital marketing agency based in Asheville, North Carolina specializing in fine art sales on social media in markets across the United States. 

Lighthouse, 1986 by Tobin Sprout

Tobin Sprout’s “Lighthouse” On The Market After 30 Years

“Lighthouse” is a seminal Photorealism piece by Tobin Sprout that has recently come up for sale on One of my favorite painters also plays really amazing music.

Lighthouse, 1986 by Tobin Sprout

Lighthouse, 1986 by Tobin Sprout

Painted as a gift for Sprout’s mother at the beginning of his technical transformation to Photorealism, this work from her estate has just come on the market after 30 years. Fine art collectors of American landscape will see how this piece stylistically and thematically fits in the history of modern American landscape. Collectors of Sprout’s work can look at “Lighthouse” as an early, well-defined bridge between his work as a commercial illustrator in Florida to the painter’s subsequent vault into hyper-realistic paintings in Dayton, Ohio.

The paintings that follow the lead of this one range through the early 90’s, and they are the defining works of Sprout’s career – the fullest realization of talent, composition and choice of subject into oversized renderings of everyday objects. His high-definition paintings of Americana interiors will coincide with his work on breakout albums Propeller, Vampire on Titus, and Bee Thousand by band Guided By Voices. The recording studio for these albums shared residence with Sprout’s painting studio in his Dayton home. (From this boom period in oversized realism, two representative works are still available at One of my favorite painters plays really amazing music, “White Villa, 1992” and “Osterizer (Self Portrait), 1993.” Both paintings are massive efforts at 60”x40” – 2400 square inches of photorealistic canvas if you’re counting.)

Tobin Sprout's Dayton, Ohio home in the early 1990's. Courtesy of Tobin Sprout.

Tobin Sprout’s Dayton, Ohio home in the early 1990’s. Courtesy of Tobin Sprout.

“Lighthouse” is both beacon to the world and secure homestead, protected from wind and elements. There is a nostalgia for the sense of purpose America represented to its citizens and the world after World War II, a world that was still a lot closer to the United States of 1986 than it is today.

In “Lighthouse,” Sprout uses meticulous detail and symbolism drawn from the unique culture of American history, a culture that believed in an exceptional purpose in the world. Sprout shares this culture with other lighthouse chroniclers Andrew Wyeth and Edward Hopper, two of the strongest landscape painters in modern American history. Sprout’s “Lighthouse” shows the same lighthouse depicted in one of Hopper’s most evocative lighthouse paintings, “Lighthouse at Two Lights.” Working by a reference photograph from a popular magazine at the time, Sprout approaches the subject from the reverse of Hopper’s chosen side. He shows the lighthouse more directly than Hopper, still respectfully, but less heroically; and wrapped in heavy shadows. The painting still gives a sense of awe, but suggests the national attitude towards our global role as world leader was becoming less reverent and more scrutinized.

The Lighthouse at Two Lights, 1927 by Edward Hopper

The Lighthouse at Two Lights, 1927 by Edward Hopper

There is something stark and pure about the lonely lighthouse which exists almost exclusively for the extroverted purpose of being a guide to the world around it, but represents an isolated human experience. (An experience, it’s worth noting, that reflects the inner life of a painter.) “Lighthouse” was painted during the same time as “Phonebooth” but relies even more heavily on the realism to come and less on painterly expressionism.

It’s as though daylight compels the artist to render exact light and detail while darkness in “Phonebooth” compels the artist to evoke light and mood first. The openness of the scene and warm tonalities of the land evoke the work of Andrew Wyeth whose dramatic depictions of American landscape are some of the most coveted paintings among collectors of modern American art.

Sleeping Bear Farm, 2017 by Tobin Sprout

Sleeping Bear Farm, 2017 by Tobin Sprout

“Sleeping Bear Farm,” painted 31 years later in a similar Wyeth influenced style, also exudes the kind of extreme stillness of “Lighthouse.” Both pieces are priced at a reasonable $3500, making “Lighthouse,” with its historical significance, an exceptionally good value.

“Lighthouse” is a key piece to the puzzle of Sprout’s embrace of Photorealism. It’s also an excellent piece of art history. Offered at the same price as contemporary work, this painting is a prize waiting to be claimed.

Story by T.R. Brogunier, Flood Content, Asheville, North Carolina
Originally published November 1, 2017