“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.

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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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"Phone Booth," 1986, Tobin Sprout, oil on canvas

Sprout’s “Phone Booth”: Gateway From Commercial To Gallery

"Phone Booth," 1986, Tobin Sprout, oil on canvas

“Phone Booth,” 1985, Tobin Sprout, oil on canvas

After contributing to some of the very earliest Guided By Voices albums and working with his own band fig. 4 (“At Bay” by fig. 4 – YouTube), Tobin Sprout moved from Dayton to Florida’s Siesta Key, just south of Tampa. For a handful of years Sprout worked creating visuals and illustrations for a local promotional publisher called See Magazine. (The publication carries on a tradition of great visuals to this day at www.see-florida.com). While in Florida, he began experimenting with painting realism and considers this “Phone Booth” self-portrait to be one of his earliest turns towards realism.

Sprout did not sell “Phone Booth” at his show in Florida, and ended up selling the painting in Michigan later. Sprout left Siesta Key to return to Dayton in 1991, officially joining Guided By Voices to record “Propeller” with Bob and Jimmy Pollard, Don Thrasher, Greg Demos, Mitch Mitchell and Dan Toohey.

Guided By Voices recording Propeller, 1991, Dayton, Ohio. Courtesy of Tobin Sprout.

Guided By Voices recording Propeller, 1991, Dayton, Ohio. Courtesy of Tobin Sprout.

CD album cover, Propeller, Guided By Voices, 1992

CD album cover, Propeller, Guided By Voices, 1992

The first Guided By Voices album with Sprout as an official member was also thought by the band to likely be their last, as they had failed to hit notoriety after years in the studio. Ironically, 1992’s “Propeller” turned out to be the band’s breakout album ‘propelling’ them into an up and coming indy rock phenomenon.

II.
“Phone Booth” is an outstanding example of mood and nuance. Florida, the place, provides a stage and backdrop for Sprout’s eventual embrace of the stark reality of photorealism. There is nothing accidental about a composition like this. The power of making unusual choices and unapologetically pursuing them is demonstrated in a full-length portrait with the subject’s back to the audience. It’s almost like the artist is waiting to show himself to the public.

It’s these unusual choices of subject and compositional challenges in a highly technical medium that will characterize nearly every photorealistic painting in Sprout’s future.

Cover art, "A Flash of Green," by John MacDonald, 1962

Cover art, “A Flash of Green,” by John MacDonald, 1962

The look evokes the feeling of the classic noir genre – one of America’s greatest literary contributions to the English language. Florida is also where many of America’s great noir writers like John MacDonald, Elmore Leonard, and Carl Hiaasen set their novels, making this painting feel like a slice of their world.

Sprout’s commitment to a specific sensibility – almost what seems like a film still – is what makes this an extra-ordinary example of his art and technique. The natural gloom of the noir genre is probably why “Phone Booth” was not snapped up in the art market of sunny, shiny Florida – this is Northern mood in its fullest. Vermeer would be proud. So would Edward Hopper.

Tobin Sprout’s statement on Hurricane Irma: “My Brother and his wife live on Siesta Key, and I had lived there for a few years as well. I had witnessed a few storms in my time on the key, but nothing like hurricane Irma. Although thankfully my brother’s place had little damage, my hopes and prayers go out to all those who were devastated by the storm.”

The last four of Tobin Sprout’s photorealism paintings from the 1990s are available to collectors now. Visit “Photorealism Paintings – Available to Collectors” Photo Gallery One of my favorite painters also plays really amazing music to see them.

"Phone Booth," 1986, Tobin Sprout, oil on canvas

“Phone Booth,” 1986, Tobin Sprout, oil on canvas

Article by TR Brogunier, Flood Content
Fine Art Representation for Tobin Sprout Paintings

Photos courtesy of Tobin Sprout and Flood Content