Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
When Santa Fe artist Tom Palmore was working in Philadelphia, he was known as “The Gorilla Man.”
The pseudonym stemmed in part from a painting now hanging in the Philadelphia Museum of Art called “Reclining Nude.” The “nude” was a gorilla.
That sense of wit and whimsy threads throughout much of the artist’s animal paintings, now showing at Santa Fe’s LewAllen Galleries. Palmore’s palette produces a menagerie of birds, bears, big cats, foxes, horses and more.
The artist says it all started at the kitchen table, where his grandfather drew animals to entertain him in Ada, Oklahoma.
“He’d draw cows, and horses and birds,” Palmore said. “Sometimes, I’d take one of his drawings into school and tell them I’d done it.”
His grandfather taught him shaping and shading, and he was soon creating the animals around him on paper.
“All the other children were drawing with stick figures, which made no sense to me,” he said.
Imbued with the artist’s characteristic wit, exquisite detail and pop-meets-surrealist sensibility, his work now hangs in the Smithsonian Institution, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the Denver Museum of Art and more.
Palmore studied painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art in Philadelphia. By the time he was 25, he found acceptance in a Whitney Annual Exhibition and was later chosen for the Venice Biennale.
He calls his an overnight success story.
“I’ve only had two jobs in my life,” he said. “One is in art and the other is a very bad bartender.”
His first gallery show sold out. By the 1980s, he was showing his work at Santa Fe’s legendary Horwitch Gallery. His first one-man show there followed Frtiz Scholder’s.
“In every gallery, there is a hierarchy,” Palmore explained. “Then, you’re invited to (Horwitch’s) fabulous parties and you get to go horseback riding with her. Then, you get to fly on her private plane.”
His love for animals germinated on his grandfather’s farm, where the family raised chickens, a paint horse and pigeons.
“It really relates back to my childhood because I really loved animals,” Palmore said. “For decades, we’ve underestimated the intelligence of the other Earthlings around us.”
He works from his own or others’ photographs, then adds his own touch of magical realism, under painting them with acrylic before topping them in oil.
Palmore’s animals often pose within unfamiliar, artificial settings, linking them through memory, association or the artist’s trademark humor. He renders them as though they are portrait sitters, lending them a sense of nobility and pride.
His backgrounds range from ancient Mayan reliefs to the curtains of the Santa Fe Opera.
“Night Watch” features an image of an owl perched on a crescent moon seemingly lifted from a fairy tale. Palmore says the image formed as he was watching an old Busby Berkeley movie.
“They were filming (the dancers) a lot from the top,” he said, “so they could show the symmetrical pattern. So, they lowered a woman onto the moon. I thought it was such a strong image, so I chose a nocturnal animal.”
His studio is crammed with hundreds of animal books. He’s also taken research trips to Guatemala, the Yucatan and Belize.
“Tiger Eyes” shows the white cat against a relief backdrop.
“I was leafing through a book of ancient (art) from India,” Palmore said. “There was a carving of a peacock. I thought ‘What would go good with this classic Indian background?’ and it had to be a tiger.”
Palmore has long considered New York’s Chrysler building the most beautiful in Manhattan, with its Art Deo architecture.
“The gargoyles on the corners there are big eagles,” he said. “I thought, ‘That is so cool.’ ”
He added a pigeon on top of the eagle.
“It’s simple, it’s straightforward; it has a bit of humor to it,” he added.
“I don’t paint a butterfly on a bear’s nose,” he said. “You can’t compete with nature. All you can do is use it for inspiration. You discover your own vision and you let that guide you.”