Hollywood heroes 

Tim Thornton's Art House Matinee indulges silver screen nostalgia

Clint Eastwood grimaces from a canvas on artist Tim Thornton's living room wall, his eyes smoldering like the cigarillo clenched between his teeth. A dirty golden sun burns down on the Fistful of Dollars protagonist, his sandblasted countenance bathed in hues of brown and bronze acrylic paint.

On the opposite wall of the room, The Graduate's quintessential cougar, Mrs. Robinson, averts her gaze from Clint's classic squint, apparently waiting for a much younger suitor. She smokes seductively in her garish yellow leopard print coat, a neon-green olive skewered in her martini glass. Angel fish swim across the vibrant blue background behind her.

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Normally, Thornton doesn't outfit his living space with so much of his own work, but the paintings currently adorn much of the house in preparation for his First Friday exhibition at the Brink Gallery. The exhibit, Art House Matinee, is a collection of over a dozen large-scale paintings of different movie stars from classic films, redefined in electric pop-art appearance, with stylistic references to artists like Stuart Davis and Roy Lichtenstein.

"I kind of want my work to read as something you see instantaneously, like a big movie poster," Thornton says. "I want the impact to be immediate."

Thornton's fascination with his silver screen subjects began in his childhood growing up in Eagle Rock, Calif., a suburb of Los Angeles, in the era of drive-in theaters and double features. Movies like The Great Escape and It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World made a lasting impression.

He attended the California College of Arts in Oakland, and upon graduating in 1984 he bounced from job to job before moving to Hollywood to become a scene painter. He then returned to Berkeley to serve as the scenic artist for the University of California's performing arts program.

In 2005, he and his wife, Patricia, moved to Missoula so she could attend graduate school. That plan fell through, but Patricia, an artist herself, became involved in the local scene and Thornton says he was quickly drawn in by the town's appreciation for the arts.

"I didn't know how great it was," he says. "I've never been in a place that's felt so welcoming,"

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Thornton points out a small painting tucked away in black binder. It's an image of Jack Nicholson's character from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest that he did while still in high school, hinting at the early roots of his current series. The more recent evolution of his focus didn't begin until 2007 when he did a Halloween show featuring classic horror movie actors like Christopher Lee and Lon Chaney.

Soon, the collection of portraits was growing. The filmmaking process had always been too excessively collaborative for Thornton's liking, but through painting, he found a way to assume the role of "director," calling all the shots for the images he created.

Now, old yogurt and cottage cheese containers full of paint are strewn across the wood floor and table surfaces in his small studio space, and silver-screen stars from a bygone era loiter around his living room like a Hollywood bar or a spaghetti western cantina. He recalls the impact those actors had on him as a kid, before the days of CGI and blockbuster budgets.

"Once I left the theater, those images would linger," says Thornton. "There's a magic to that that I want to be a part of, not as a spectator, but as a participant."

Tim Thornton's Art House Matinee opens at The Brink Gallery Fri., Dec. 7, with a reception from 5 to 8 PM. Free.

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