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Honor Titus, “Self-Portrait” (2021)
Honor Titus, “Self-Portrait” (2021), Oil on canvas, 72 x 48 inches 182.9 x 121.9 cm© Honor Titus. Courtesy of Timothy Taylor, London/New York

Honor Titus’ paintings celebrate the elegant pageantry of athletics

We talk to the rising art-world star and former punk band frontman about the romance and rituals of sporting life

Honor Titus’ paintings evoke a sense of romance and ritual that seems to belong to a different era. With a Eurocentric panache reminiscent of the cinema of Wes Anderson, the idiosyncratic paintings by the 32-year-old Brooklyn-born artist awaken a sense of nostalgia for a grand past or a more appealing plain of reality just beyond our reach. 

While the constellation of ideas and reference points that influence Titus seem varied and vast, they all share a picturesque elegance that can feel increasingly lacking in modern life. The many sources of inspiration he cites include the literature of Evelyn Waugh, The Smiths’ television appearances in the early 1980s, the legendary French novelist and petty criminal Jean Genet, and 1950s cafe culture in downtown New York.

The rising art-world star’s new exhibition by the Timothy Taylor gallery at Frieze London features a series of paintings inspired by the pageantry and spectacle of athletics. Drawing on the French Les Nabis movement of the 19th century, Titus often positions his figures in expanses of negative space filled with flat plains of colour. While the characters that frequent this series of paintings are an ensemble cast, they are, more often than not, alone. His work is permeated by a sense of solitude. 

The multidisciplinary artist, poet, and former frontman of NYC punk band, Cerebral Ballzy, is an ascending star in the art world after relocating to the west coast and returning to painting. Los Angeles has provided Titus with a sense of space and leisure that eluded him in the frenetic environment of New York. It’s also thrown him in the path of artist Henry Taylor, an elder statesman of figurative art in LA who’s become a great friend to the younger artist. 

Take a look through the gallery above for a glimpse of the artworks from his exhibition. Below, we talk to Honor Titus about the idyllic worlds captured in his paintings, loafing around with Henry Taylor, and the aesthetic of the sporting life.

What aspects of sport and leisure captured your imagination when making these paintings? 

Honor Titus: Form and pageantry. Athletics are often filled with such ritual, whether it be sartorial or domain, that I find it quite rich for inspiration. A connecting thread through this effort is a general air of youth and academia. I like to imagine that ‘Sunset on Utica’ depicts a young woman taking the subway to school in Brooklyn, as I did.

Who are the various characters depicted in this latest series? 

Honor Titus: I strive for a sense of anonymity in my work. I hope to create the air of found ephemera sometimes. The idea that there is a story that feels so close, yet the viewer will never realise, can be emotional. 

Otherwise, there is a self-portrait. A touch of Sebastian Flyte (the doomed yet romantic hero of Evelyn Waugh’s seminal novel, Brideshead Revisited), classical portraiture, and The Smiths on Top of the Pops. My dear friends say that it is very ‘me’.  

Your paintings seem to be located in their own world that resembles reality but looks so much more appealing. Could you tell us about the world your figures inhabit? 

Honor Titus: Quite the compliment there, thank you.

There are many worlds, and maybe even a different world for every piece. Anecdotally, I remember a collector came to my first solo exhibition – at Henry Taylor’s – and said, ‘I love it, but it feels like a group show!’

I think the work has progressed and congealed in some ways since then. There is a sense of the idyllic that permeates regardless.

Please could you tell us about your relationship with Henry Taylor? How do you spend time together (this is mostly just for my own gratuitous curiosity!)? 

Honor Titus: We are friends. We loaf around smoking and eating usually, talking about miscellaneous affairs, tribulations, and ideas. The wisdom I’ve gathered – which is plentiful – has been gathered by way of his companionship. He’s the best. We’ve been planning to play tennis for months.

“To create something beautiful that did not exist beforehand is truly divine. We mustn’t undermine the divine” – Honor Titus

Beyond the art world, who inspires you? 

Honor Titus: Roger Federer inspires me greatly. Roger would break racquets and be quite disdainful when faced with adversity. For him to handle his victories and hardships with such grace gives me direction and inspiration. To see the ambassador and sportsman he has become is awe-inducing.

There’s a timelessness about your work, yet your paintings are rich with references to other decades. Which eras and movements do you feel most affinity with? 

Honor Titus: There are many ideas that excite me… To hang out on 52nd Street in 1959 and hear the jazz and to see the street scene. Also, to be a little further downtown and see the burgeoning idea happening in the cafes. To attend a Black Panther rally with Genet – that also sounds appealing.

I read a great quote by you which was inspired by Warhol. You said, ‘Just to provide something beautiful is enough; to provide something appealing is enough.’ Could you elaborate on this? 

Honor Titus: There are such a plethora of media and ‘ideas’ that successes are often overlooked and underappreciated. To create something beautiful that did not exist beforehand is truly divine. We mustn’t undermine the divine. 

What has relocating to Los Angeles given you creatively that New York couldn’t?

Honor Titus: New York could give me anything and everything. However, I wasn’t in a place to find or receive it. What I found in LA was time, space, focus, true leisure. All things that exist in NYC, I’m sure.

Honor Titus is at Timothy Taylor, Frieze London (Stand A18) until October 17, 2021