We as humans seem to have a fascination with documenting ourselves—with showing that we were here, that we mattered. From the crude marks of ancient cave paintings to more contemporary portraits of the wealthy and aristocratic, the act of documenting does more than just record its time. It also exposes something more universal about us, such as our fear of impermanence and fear of being forgotten. While the advent of photography catalyzed and democratized the ability to record ourselves (and, arguably, replaced painting as the primary method for recording ourselves visually), painters seem to keep finding ways of saying something new.

Will Thornton, Mine, 2023. Oil on linen, 28 x 22 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Nicodim. Photograph by Yubo Dong, of studio photography.

According to the press release for his solo show at Nicodim, “Hypnagogic Sex Idols,” Will Thornton forayed into portraiture as recently as 2019. Since traditional portraits were still very much in style where he lived in the South, Thornton thought it would be a lucrative venture to paint portraits of wealthy families in the area. But this journey into portraiture came to an abrupt halt when the Covid-19 Pandemic struck. As we all know, it was a time of fear—of sickness, death, and the unknown—and a constant reminder of humanity’s fragility. Most people were too hesitant to even have their friends over, let alone allow a craftsman or portrait painter to come into their homes. Yet, the pandemic opened a door for Thornton to explore something else.   

Harnessing the fears of the pandemic, his skill as a traditional portrait painter, and even his recent experience with becoming a father, Thornton manifested the nightmarish figures of “Hypnagogic Sex Idols.” Taken literally, Thornton’s paintings appear to be portraits of anthropomorphic sculptures, made of fabric, leather, clay and canvas, which are then posed in front of dramatically-lit backdrops. But they work in other ways, too, as if materializing something from the subconscious, or even functioning metaphorically.

Will Thornton, Some Have Broken Ankles (Some Have Broken Hearts), 2023. Oil on linen, 26 x 22 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Nicodim. Photograph by Yubo Dong, of studio photography.

One of the strengths of Thornton’s paintings is that they lend themselves to multiple interpretations and references, which often interact in unexpected or unsettling ways. For one, the figures aren’t human, but are familiar enough to be humanized. Features that look limb-like and effeminate easily transition into lifeless geometric forms, sometimes monstrous in proportion and shape.

More curiously, although these figures appear overtly sexualized, they can be just as grotesque. Some are even vulgar, dripping or spraying liquids onto the floor. Others give off an air of demure innocence or sadness. Very cleverly, they appear to draw from the visual language of ancient fertility totems (Venus of Willendorf, for example), but are also reminiscent of the freakish creations of contemporary pop culture (Ugly Dolls, Huggy Wuggy, Real Monsters, Feisty Pets). Despite their often nightmarish and even grotesque appearance, Thornton gives them a sense of tenderness.

Will Thornton, Dye Stealer, 2023. Oil on linen, 22 x 18 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Nicodim. Photograph by Yubo Dong, of studio photography.

It’s hard enough to create—and then balance—such disparate traits and expressions in human subjects, but Thornton makes the effort seem natural, and with inanimate objects too. Take Dye Stealer (2023) for example. The dark reddish-brown figure in this work features a prominent backside, a puffy leather couch-like texture, some sort of orifice, and tilts its “legs” in a casual pose. Owing to Thornton’s skill as a painter, Dye Stealer seemingly reveals a candid moment, or maybe even a private one, like nude portraits that are obviously posed but attempt to capture a casual feeling.

In an era when it is easy to draw on the ugliness and trepidation of life (in the face of a global pandemic, climate change, and other events seemingly beyond the control of any individual—just to name a few), Thornton offers something else. As if materializing an abstraction can provide some sense of control or certainty over it, these works offer something like that for the very real yet hard-to-place sentiments of life. They ask us to gaze into the nightmare, but find more than just fear.

Will Thornton
Hypnagogic Sex Idols
July 8 – August 12, 2023
1700 S Santa Fe Avenue #160
Los Angeles, CA 90021

Zachary C. Jensen is a writer, educator, and sometimes translator based in Los Angeles, California. He is the managing/founding editor of the literary journal Angel City Review and the editor of the chapbook series Animals by Business Bear Press.