November-December 2014 … The Global Online Magazine of Arts, Information & Entertainment … Volume 10, Number 6
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John Tierney/Artist Interview

 © John Tierney

Formosa Stop, LA | 20″ x 16′ | Oil on canvas

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Meet the professor:

At the end of the day,

Art wins 

by Mike Foldes

John Tierney is a British painter whose subjects are most likely to be scenes from places where his three sons live, Los Angeles, New York and Helsinki, than his home in Durham, nearer Edinburgh than London. It’s the light and the way it plays off his subjects, as much as anything, that determines what he paints, with subjects ranging from natural rock formations in the desert, to flamingo-pink buildings under clear blue skies of Los Angeles on a perfect day, to the sun-soaked streets of Brooklyn, if you can imagine that, with neighborhood backdrops of theaters, bridges and streets, in ways that capture both the eye and the imagination. Tierney’s working background includes a long career as a university-level criminology professor whose “retirement” has allowed him to nourish a lifelong interest in art. Not only is he engaged as a painter, he’s an accomplished musician who can jam with the best, and – when in L.A. –  does. When his L.A.-based son Ben asked if we might be interested in featuring his father’s work in Ragazine, it hit a sweet spot – largely because we wanted to know more about this cat who does indeed appear to have nine lives. You can make what you like of the art, as many have with comparisons to David Hockney and Edward Hopper; but in other terms, what he sees and what he paints are as much derivative of his existential approach to “nature vs nurture”.   Read what the professor has to say.

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Ragazine: I’m as interested in your career path as where you are today as a painter, so if some of the questions seem to come out of left field, I’ll leave it to you to answer as you like. As an aside, our politics editor Jim Palombo has studied and taught criminology internationally for many years, and has written a couple of books including From Heroin to Heresy and From Criminal to Critic. I just completed a book, Sleeping Dogs – A true story of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. See the connection… So, how did you happen to take the criminology career path, as opposed to studying art and teaching art at the university level?

Tierney: I was born into a working class family in the industrial north west of England. There was no history of further or higher education in my immediate or, indeed, extended family. Everyone had left school at the minimum legal age. When I was a boy this was 15 years. I did, though, show some aptitude for school work and stayed on at school for an extra year, gaining some basic qualifications. The education system reflected the class system: the vast majority of working class kids were ‘selected’ at 11 for the type of secondary school that I attended. These were called secondary moderns and, in fact, around 70% of the population attended these. In general, they prepared pupils for manual jobs. I was quite good at, and enjoyed, art at school and would have liked to have pursued a career in, for instance, commercial art. However, at 16 I received little encouragement for this and believed that I wasn’t talented enough for a career in art. So, when I left school I began an engineering apprenticeship, which involved attending a local college for one day a week. I continued to paint and read about art and artists, but I also developed a keen interest in social and political issues. Sociology seemed to offer an opportunity to explore these things in depth. Thus at 23, and by now a qualified draftsman, I decided to apply to university to study for a degree. Although I didn’t have conventional entrance qualifications, my engineering qualifications (and perhaps enthusiasm) convinced a couple of admissions tutors that I was worth taking on. The rest, as they say, is history. I got my degree, followed by post-graduate qualifications, and entered into, firstly, further, then later on, higher education as a lecturer. By the late 1970s I had developed a particular interest in the sociology of crime and deviance, and this became my specialist field. To me it was inherently interesting and as a field of study appeared to incorporate all of the major sociological debates and issues. I retired from Durham University in 2010 and this provided an opportunity to engage with my painting in a more serious way than previously. Throughout my life as an academic I had continued, on and off, to paint. 

Q) Did you ever paint or draw in another style than the one you’re working in today? Was there ever a time abstract expressionism had an appeal?

A) Over the years I explored a variety of ‘styles’ and techniques (including abstract expressionism!). However, what I am doing now is, I suppose, my ‘default’ mode. 

©John Tierney

Red Car in the Valley of Fire, NV | 12″ x 9″ | Oil on canvas

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Q) If you paint from photographs, do you ever manipulate the images, or do you remain pretty much true to the “visual events” you work from?

A) While some painters are reluctant to admit that they use photographs, for me they are the basis of the work I do. It it not my intention, though, to simply reproduce a photographic image. I work on these images. Sometimes this means manipulating them in the simple sense of moving things around, but more importantly, ‘manipulation’ occurs through the use of technique and colour. Looking at my paintings, the viewer is obviously aware that they are seeing a painting and not, say, a textured photograph. Most of my work is based on the urban landscape of Los Angeles and the desert landscape of Joshua Tree National Park (I’ve visited each on many occasions – one of my sons and his wife live in L.A.). I’m attracted by the light and shade, the architecture of L.A. and the sharp delineation of sky and buildings/mountains. Some of my paintings, though, are of New York and Helsinki – where my two other sons live. Two major influences are Edward Hopper and the earlier, L.A.-based paintings of David Hockney. Edward Hopper said that he was fascinated by the chance events found in nature. I am fascinated by the chance events captured by the camera – in the broadest sense a sort of serendipity. This involves, for example, light, reflections, and the deportment of people. To illustrate, one of my paintings is of the Cobble Hill cinema in Brooklyn, N.Y. I took a photograph of parents and their kids following, I presume, a morning show. Only when I began to draw out the scene on canvas did I notice a girl in a flamboyant red dress, and with one of her arms in an odd position. She became the focal point of the painting. 

Q) Do you spend a lot of time searching for images or scenes to paint, or is choosing your subjects a more casual undertaking, where you engage in customary activities like going to the grocery store and suddenly are taken by what you see?

A) I usually take my camera with me when I’m in the US and out walking, and I’m always on the look out for interesting images. My three sons have also been important sources – they know the kind of stuff that appeals to me. 

Q) I don’t see any paintings of London on your website. Don’t you like painting in shades of  gray, or are these stored somewhere?

A) At the moment none of my paintings are of locations in the U.K. I suppose that one dimension to this is that I visit L.A., New York or Helsinki as an ‘outside’ observer who is fascinated by the differences between these places and, say, London.

Q) Do you have more than one studio, meaning, in L.A., or in London or New York? Where is most of your work (painting) produced?

A) I have one studio and it’s in the UK.

Q) Have you spent considerable time in the museums in London or elsewhere in Europe? Which is your favorite, if one can have a favorite?

A) A ‘considerable’ time would be an exaggeration. However, when in a European (or U.S.,  for that matter) city I do like to include a visit to the major galleries, or a minor one if something has caught my eye. I live some distance from London, so I’m not able to routinely visit the many galleries on offer there. I don’t have a favorite, but when in London I like to visit the usual suspects: The National Gallery, The Tate Modern, Tate Britain and (for its Summer Exhibition) The Royal Academy. One gem I’ve discovered outside of the U.K. is the Ateneum Art Museum in Helsinki, Finland.

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Q) You’ve written at least two books about criminology. Do you still have a desire to write, and if so, is the subject the same? Do you see yourself analyzing art and artists in the same way you drilled down into criminology? Is it environment or DNA that makes men artists? Criminals?

A) To a large extent writing has been put to one side since I retired from the university. I do enjoy writing and have various ideas, though none are in the area of academic criminology. One project, roughly sketched out, is a novel dealing with a crime theme – I quite like the idea of writing in a genre that frees me from any concerns with evidence and footnotes! While I’m happy to respond to questions such as these, it would be presumptuous of me to embark on a project aimed at a serious engagement with art and artists. The last question you’ve included in this section is (to put it mildly) a big and complex one! However, it is an interesting one, so I’ll respond, albeit in broad terms (and I do discuss it in much more detail in my book Criminology: Theory and Context). Basically, you are referring to the long-standing debate about nature vs nurture. Stated simply: does someone become a criminal (or artist, which I’ll return to) because of a genetic predisposition, or as a result of social experiences? It thus lies within a context of debates about the so called causes of crime. To begin with, any reference to the ‘causes’ of crime based upon a simple A causes B model should set the alarm bells ringing. Over the years a steady stream of politicians, journalists, criminal justice personnel and academics have apparently tracked down the causes of crime. As a result we have a bewildering galaxy of causal explanations, taking in bad genes, chromosome deficiencies, deformed personalities, trendy parents, lone parents, trendy lone parents, simple greed, deprivation, blocked opportunities, peer group pressure, status frustration, too little money, too much money and artificial coloring in fish fingers. The corollary of these has been an equally bewildering galaxy of treatment/punishment packages: offenders have been incarcerated in hulks on the River Thames, transported from Britain to Australia, hanged, pelted with eggs in village stocks, tortured in dungeons, given short sharp shocks in detention centers, sterilized, injected with mind-altering drugs, made to face their victims, sent on wagon trains across America and (nowadays especially popular in the U.S. and U.K.) locked up in prison. To illustrate the complexities raised by this debate, you refer to ‘men’ in the question – though I assume you include women. Most crime, especially violent crime, in the U.S. and U.K. (and many other societies) is in the main committed by men. Thus gender – masculinity and femininity –defined as socially constructed understandings of maleness and femaleness, is one of myriad factors that need to be taken into consideration. I’m skeptical of the idea that criminals are predisposed towards criminal behavior because of their genetic makeup. No ‘criminal gene’ has ever been tracked down. As a social scientist I have always been more interested in the social, though I am critical of social (as well as genetic) explanations based upon deterministic causal relationships. Thus the notion of ‘bad’ genes or ‘bad’ environments propelling some individuals into crime seems to me to be far too simplistic. Clearly, the relationship between genetic make-up and social experiences is extremely complex. Furthermore, the concept of social experiences is shorthand for what has to encompass a vast range of social structural factors, social interactions, cultural, political and economic considerations, subjective understandings and creative responses on the part of individuals. People are both shaped by, and help shape the social world. Where and how one is brought up, one’s opportunities in life, how one is treated by others, how one sees oneself and one’s place in society and how one subjectively understands and gives meaning to the social world, etc., etc., all have to go into the mix when attempting to explain criminal, or any other, behavior. And, when focusing on specifically criminal behavior, it is important to note that ‘crime’ covers a huge range of activities. There is a danger of conceptualizing crime simply in terms of so called ‘conventional’ crime, such as burglary and street robbery, and ignoring the significant amount of white-collar and corporate crime that exists. In some ways it is more productive to approach these debates about criminality from the opposite direction, that is, by recognizing that ‘crime’ is a relative, not an absolute concept. No activity is inherently criminal. What is defined as criminal depends upon the criminal law, which varies from one society to another, and in one particular society changes over the years. The fact that nothing is inherently criminal makes any attempt to construct a universal explanation of criminal behavior highly problematic. Similar issues (based on the notion of relativism, rather than absolutism) are raised if we turn to ‘artists’, as referred to in your questions. I’m not at all sure what an artist is. Anyone can call themselves an artist. One thing they do, though, is produce what they consider to be ‘art’. Therefore, I think it is art, not artist, that is most relevant to the debate you have raised: is genetic endowment the key factor explaining an individual’s ability to produce what is defined as ‘good’ art? The problem here is that just as no behavior is inherently criminal, so no piece of artwork is inherently good. Whether or not it gets recognized as such is contingent upon many evolving factors: for instance, taste and expectations vis a vis ‘good’/’legitimate’ art during a particular historical period, social, political and cultural contexts and the nature of a specific audience who have the power to define a piece of work as good. What is defined as good, marketable art varies enormously in terms of type of expertise, technique, materials and intention – think of cubism, abstract art, abstract expression, videos and all sorts of installations, for example. Obviously, an ability to produce accurate representations of things, as conventionally understood, is not a prerequisite for the creation of ‘good’ art – nor should it be. Therefore, if we cannot pin down a specific ability necessary to create good art, then searching for the source of good art in an individual’s genetic make-up is a chimera. If I may, I’d like to make a final point regarding genetics and criminality. During the 1920s and 1930s the eugenics movement achieved a significant following in continental Europe and the United States. Essentially, it was concerned with ‘improving’ the genetic stock, which meant devising ways of preventing those defined as ‘degenerate’, of low intelligence, or otherwise judged as deviant/criminal from having children (through sterilizing them, for example). This mission to ‘purify’ the genetic pool, however, was somewhat sullied by those who during World War 2 took the arguments to their logical conclusion in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

Q) Have your interests, including art and music, rubbed off on all of your sons?

A) It’s difficult to say with certainty what has ‘rubbed off’, but my middle son is a social science professor at an American college. All three have dabbled with painting and drawing over the years, though none, so far, has engaged with these seriously. They all, though, have a good eye for photographs. My eldest son, in fact, is a very accomplished photographer and has produced work commercially (he provided the image for one of my books, for instance). 

Q) You’ve gotten a lot of play for the painting you did of the Paul Smith Store in Los Angeles, and his hallmark scarf. How did this experience come about?                                                                                       

A) I gave Paul Smith one of my paintings of his store as a present and he thought that it would provide an interesting image for use on a limited edition silk scarf. My forthcoming exhibition at the store in May is a knock-on effect.

Q) If you had to do over, would you have been an artist first and a criminologist second?

A) I have no regrets about entering into the field of criminology. However, if I could go back and do it over, I’d probably choose art, simply because I would have already experienced the world of criminology and would like to try something different.  

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 Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted via e-mail in February and March of 2012.  For more information about John Tierney, including links to his music, visit http://www.john-tierney.com.