In the Studio with Tommy Camerno

In the studio with Tommy Camerno, a visual artist whose work observes how patterns in our cultural surroundings correspond to patterns of behaviour. We met with Tommy to tell us more about growing up in London, their greatest influences, and catalyst for creating a “good” piece of work.

When did you first begin to see yourself as an artist?

There’s a romantic idea of being an artist, or a bohemian. There’s the idea of rejecting mainstream capitalist society. I make artworks. If you say you’re an artist, then whatever you define as your artwork is your art work. Being an artist is something defined from the outside, like any label. When a writer called me an artist I took his word for it, but I’ve also been described as a painter. I see myself as an artist who often makes paintings.  

 Where are you from and what was your upbringing like?

I was born in London. I watched The Simpsons a lot growing up in the 90s. UK culture at that time was very influenced by American culture and still is. I was recently thinking about the character of Mr. Smithers, his desires for Mr. Burns were only allowed to be realized in dream sequences. Leo Bersani wrote in 2009; ‘The family identity produced on American television is much more likely to include your dog than your homosexual brother or sister.’ I think this idea of marginality in culture has impacted me and how I work with the problem of representation.

Paint us a picture of your artistic journey. What inspired you to first pursue, and then continue to practice artistic work?

I’m skeptical of the idea of an authentic self. Culture produces our identities as we produce culture. I often walk around and find things in the street, and walk around photographing architectural details. Later I moved to Berlin and often got lost traveling around that city.  I feel like being lost is more inspiring than being on the right track. 

What’s the message of your work? Where do they come from?

I want to see art as an exquisite pilgrimage. Since the invention of canvas on stretchers, art has been easily shipped around as it became unlinked from architecture. My work looks at what is lost in that break. I pay attention to the histories and heritage that surrounds us, what endures, what enforces, what shuts and what shines. Alongside all existing culture in our surroundings, the culture I create causes people to become who they are. This is both a grandiose and mundane statement as people meet the work at different degrees of self actualisation.

Who & what are your greatest influences? 

I’ve been thinking about Francis Picabia again recently, I saw a big show of his work at Moma. Living in New York at that time in 2016, I saw exhibitions from David Hammons and Nan Goldin as well as the big Unfinished show at the Met. I saw a talk from the late Douglas Crimp at Light Industry in Brooklyn,  his essay ‘The End of Painting’ is one I often come back to.  Something about this time and those exhibitions is still very present in my work. 

An unexpected source of inspiration?

Last year I became interested in LGBTQIA+ flag designs, from the rainbow flag designed by Gilbert Baker to more recent flags like the Transgender flag designed by Monica Helms and the Intersex Inclusive Flag designed by Valentino Vecchietti. Vecchietti has said that the way a city treats its most marginalised people is a good indicator of how well that city is working. I think about this a lot as I aspire to be an ally as a member of a community. I also question how flags can be different and similar to paintings and other culturally significant objects. As I often design my paintings before I draft them out, I think about the possibility of a painting as a highly complex flag. Symbolic of a shifting specificity that flips into the universal.

What do you want people to take from your work when they view it?

I recently had a chat with Carolina Aguirre Barrandeguy from the RCA painting program about this, she described the experience of exhibiting work that she had made without thinking she would ever show it. I thought about this as a sort of wildness compared to the domestication of exhibiting in public, particularly a white cube space. I think it’s important to make an amount of experimental work that doesn’t have an audience in mind. Work that pushes the limits of what I can explore, both psychologically and processually. 

Works like the Blessed Business series take an almost provocative relationship to an idea of an audience; I imagine a man in a suit looking at this series, would he feel represented or ridiculed by the works. I had a dream last night about a room with curved edges smoothing the transition between the wall and the ceiling.  I used to stare at this detail of a room I lived in a few years ago. The peacefulness created by that design decision is something like what I want my works to achieve. My work is like architecture remembered through a dream.

What events in your life have mobilised change in your practise/aesthetic? 

I am very grateful for official and unofficial residencies which have enabled me to push the limits of my practice through experimentation. I’m thinking of a time when I was cat-sitting for a friend of mine while he was traveling. I covered the bedroom in plastic sheeting and made paintings for a few days while the cat ran around in the other room. Getting this space at that time was enough to push my work to a new scale and that was the first time I realised I could have a sort of traveling, versatile studio. More recently I participated in a residency at The Columbia Hotel in London where my experience of the chandeliers in the hotel became a major series that I am still finding new facets to. I’ve been told my work is very experimental, I maintain this through working on multiple series in tandem. Over a long time the continuity across the different series becomes clearer as experimentation flows out into deeper tributaries. One thing that is amazing about art is it’s possibility for going in more than one direction at once, and to exist in multiple ways.


What are your ideal conditions or catalyst for creating a “good” piece of work?

Especially in painting I think there is an idea that it should be a solitary activity. For me I think the work is best when it involves other people. Working in sculpture it’s much more accepted that you will need to work with technicians, fabricators and even seek help to open doors when carrying a big weird piece of tangled metal from workshop to studio. Over the winter I worked on three large paintings with a friend. I hope the works are good, they are invested with the commitment we shared in finishing them. Recently someone was helping me stretch a large canvas and I said ‘this painting will have to be good now because you helped me to make it’ so there is an element of responsibility to the people who believe in the work.

Tell us about the inspiration behind one of your works?

Ornament Painting 08 is part of a series in which I paint ornamental designs on top of canvases that I’ve used as a palette while making other paintings. The palette for this painting was used on a painting from my series Cristal so the colours of the background are colours from the chandelier. I think of these palette paintings as unconscious paintings, in the same way I think of the evolution of ornament in art history as something unconscious, subconscious or naturally occuring. Since modernism there has been a rejection of ornament in fine art but recently it has returned as a point of interest for writers and artists. For example Anne Anlin Cheng’s book Ornamentalism has had a big influence on me. She describes the relationship between ornament and identities marginalised by normative society. Jack Halberstam has also discussed how the modernist rejection of ornament relates to the authoritarian will to control and create order with clean straight lines. The final touch was to glue rhinestones to the canvas to add a camp sparkle and signify the objecthood of this work which sits on the border of my painting and sculpture practice. 

Something in the future you hope to explore?

To follow on from Ornament Painting 08 I hope to further explore this exciting margin between the picture and architecture, what they can learn from each other and how they can help each other. As I’ve been so inspired by different cities I would love to explore cities that I haven’t been to yet. I was talking to a friend recently about a project I’m working on that is inspired by a balcony in Ludgate Hill and he told me about the amazing balconies of Tbilisi. They have more relaxed planning laws so the city has a proliferation of vernacular or almost homemade balconies that he referred to as squat-balconies. There’s something romantic and rebellious about this that I find very tempting.