Large and Luminous

Tom Bacher's paintings light up the Weston Art Gallery

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"It’s like chess,” Tom Bacher says of his self-invented process for painting. “I have to think 20 moves ahead.”

The results of this strategic approach to making art, Luminous Paintings by Tom Bacher, opens Friday in the downtown Aronoff Center for the Arts’ Weston Art Gallery. It will fill all three galleries, which is unusual but not unprecedented for the Weston.

“We have to consider the stature of the artist and scale of the work,” Weston Director Dennis Harrington says of his decision to give Bacher the entire space. “Tom is certainly worthy. The interest is there. And for scale, one painting is 18 feet wide and another 23 feet.”

Bacher grew up on the city’s West Side, went to St. Jude Elementary and Elder High School and had a father and grandfather in the bakery business.

“Some people still remember the rye bread from Bacher’s Bakery,” he says. “My dad’s arms were all muscle from kneading the dough.”

Bacher, 57, tall and square-built, is wearing a rumpled plaid shirt and has a couple of days’ beard when we talk. He has gotten up early (for him) to meet at 2 in the afternoon in his downtown studio. He ordinarily works from midnight or 1 a.m. to 6 or 7 a.m., then goes home and watches vintage cowboy TV series.

“I like the old ones — Bat Masterson, Cheyenne,” he says. “When the black-and-white ones finish and they go into color, I go to bed.”

He’s been married but isn’t now.

“What woman in her right mind would put up with all this?” he asks, gesturing to a studio marked by the usual confusion of painters’ working spaces. “Maybe a woman in her wrong mind,” he says, laughing. “This may look messy, but I know where everything is.”

Bacher’s individual process produces paintings that appear in different guises depending on the light. In ordinary day or lamplight they are one thing, in black light another and in no light at all thing, in black light another and in no light at all they produce their own glow.

“I’m interested in reflections — not solidness, not photo-realism,” he says. “(I’m interested) in seeing the essence of the light. I’m trying to capture what it feels like, not what it looks like. I’m not a photo-realist; I’m a feeling realist.”

His paintings are phosphorescent, he says.

“Not fluorescent, day-glow or black-light colors,” he says. “Black-light isn’t permanent. I believe paintings should stand up on their own in light as well as dark. Otherwise it’s just a gimmick.”

Bacher was already interested in what might be called “carry-over illumination” in the early 1970s when, still a student at the Art Academy of Cincinnati, he began sticking “glow-in-the-dark stuff,” as he calls it, on paintings.

“I found out about the paint in 1975 and everything since then is luminous,” he says.

He has worked out his own method, mixing luminous crystals with acrylic paints, binders and clear gels.

“The acrylic acts as a sealer, so they don’t lose their ability to glow in the dark,” he says. “The very first ones I made still glow as bright today as the day I made them.”

He first squeezes colors on a white-painted canvas, using plastic ketchup bottles.

“I look at myself as a cookie decorator, using paints instead of icing,” he says with an amused, oblique reference to the family’s history in the bakery business. “Then I smooth things down with a knife, and then I sand. The sanding part is just drudgery. It takes self-discipline. You can’t fire yourself. I go from cookie maker to auto body man, but instead of cookies or cars I make paintings. When I’m done I’m exhausted.”

Gesturing toward a series he’s presently working on, which depicts Times Square, he says, “When I finish this one, I’ll sleep for a week.”

Aside from the paintings, the show will include a three-dimensional object, the stepladder Bacher festoons with tape in the course of working.

“I use tape where I need straight lines, so the paint goes on it, and when I pull off the tapes I just start sticking them on the ladder,” he says. “I’ve thrown together crazy stuff like this before, but never shown it. I just stuck stuff on here and then, hey, I like that!”

The show will include abstracts as well as realistic works.

“Most people like the realistic ones best, but the abstracts for me are a relief,” he says. “I can go out of the lines in a way I can’t in the others.”

Although he lived in New York for 10 years and Los Angeles for four and spends frequent time abroad — where his Brussels dealer arranges for shows across Europe — he seems settled in his current Cincinnati life.

The Weston show will be a mini-survey of a more than 30-year career, says Harrington.

“We’ll put the abstracts in the street-level space, with rotating lights, visible from outside,” Harrington says. “And rotating lights downstairs, too.”

LUMINOUS PAINTINGS BY TOM BACHER opens at the Weston Art Gallery with a reception 6-9 p.m. Friday and continues through March 21. Get gallery details and find nearby bars and restaurants here.

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