As new restaurants achieve the same cultural cachet once reserved for art galleries, and as chefs take their place as “artists” as serious as any actor, painter or writer, it seems inevitable that artists would, in their way, return the favor.
And so it is with the painter Thomas Arvid, who has found artistic gold in painting still life portraits of … wine. His paintings hang in private collections and galleries across the country, and in restaurants: The Fleming’s steakhouse chain features Arvid’s work, and the Atlanta-based painter will be in Las Vegas this weekend to paint at the Summerlin restaurant. Arvid will also appear at Kush Fine Art from 2-6 p.m. on April 26.
The painter’s technically precise, photorealist style is eye-catching, and the artistry is in the details: Bubbles in the glass, wine-stained corks, smudged corkscrews, torn foil, the squiggly line of wine pouring into a glass. “We’ve become more like the Europeans,” says Arvid, of the ascendancy of wine over beer in the United States. “Wine has become more acceptable. It’s almost like a food group now.”
Wine seems symbolically ripe these days, an emblem of both the global industrial economy and its doppelganger, the locally sourced, “slow food”-inspired, boutique epicurean Good Life that a slate of luxury magazines and cable channels dazzle us with every month. One of the ironies of Arvid’s paintings, he points out, is that while wine advertising is illegal in restaurants, his paintings at Fleming’s essentially are ads, protected under the cloak of art.
Still, Arvid isn’t providing any pop-art satire on the wine industry, but instead a sort of full-size Hallmark card. “When people see it who go crazy over my paintings, it’s people who understand wine and what it’s meant for, to bring people together. They’re reminded of friends.”
Nevertheless, there are modern touches. “When you think of what a traditional still life looked like, it was very uninviting. It didn’t draw you in to want to touch it. [It was] so formally arranged you wouldn’t want to touch it.”
Arvid’s work gives the still life a touch of movement. “Nothing is completely on the canvas,” he says. “Nothing is left whole. All the articles in the painting are interrupted by something in front of it, or running off the canvas.” This, and the odd angles Arvid paints, gives his work a more relaxed air. Some of his wine bottles are partially turned away from the viewer, “so you want to reach into the painting and see it and turn it.”
Of course, painting wine bottles is not something a young artist necessarily sets out to do, especially one from Detroit, a town where the art talent usually gets scooped up by the auto companies and pressed into careers designing cars. “Wine is something that I never knew was going to be my subject matter, my muse,” says Arvid, who is self-taught. “As a young artist, I was trying to figure out what would make me different.”
Part of his answer came from a backpacking trip through Europe, where he was captivated by the visibility of artists selling their works in the street. That’s what America needed, he figured. The rest came from constant experimentation, which, when he was around 30, included a self-described red phase. He focused on painting red objects: Converse high-top sneakers, Radio Flyer wagons, Coke cans. Red wine was just one of many on the list, but someone bought his first red wine painting right off the easel. Soon, people began bringing him bottles of wine and offering to buy his paintings of them.
Arvid, by then living in Atlanta, began traveling to arts festivals. He’d paint for months, hit the road and sell out in a day. Getting art galleries interested took longer —until he took a mid-’90s trip to a gallery in Napa Valley, the heart of wine country, and sold six paintings to a gallery in a single day. Early on he was painting between 24 and 30 works a year; as his technique has become more detailed, he now only paints six or eight in a year, and spends most of his time on the road. By now he’s done hundreds.
Of course, one of the ironies of his success is that you’re unlikely to find him selling his wares at the local art festival—he spends most of the year shuttling among the many galleries that showcase his work. And if Arvid’s wine bottles are squarely middlebrow, the prices aren’t: His paintings go for five and six figures, and the wait for one of his originals may last four years.
Not surprisingly, he has become something of a wine connoisseur himself. “The wine world is so huge in the variety of grapes and what each winemaker can do with those grapes,” he says. “It’s almost like art itself.”
Dinner with Thomas Arvid
April 25, 6:30 pm, $125
Flemings Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar
8721 West Charleston Blvd., 838-4774