David Thomas: Works for This Century - Art Collector

Issue 40, April - June 2007

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In between working towards the three major exhibitions of his photopaintings planned for this year, David Thomas found a moment to talk to Ingrid Periz.

Melbourne painter and installation artist David Thomas explains the title for his April exhibition at Nellie Castan Gallery, Works from This Century (…and other things) this way: “One of the ways of thinking about the difference between the twentieth and the twenty-first century is through the monochrome. In the West, the tradition of the monochrome engages two different aims: through the Suprematists towards a fourth-dimensional, metaphysical realm, and through the Constructivists toward concrete reality. One of the opportunities we have in the early twenty-first century, as opposed to the early twentieth, is to think about how to accommodate the two.”

Thomas’s work picks up big ideas with deceptively simple means: photographs masked out by rectangular areas of paint, installations of single areas of colour, and small, often meticulously wrought non-objective paintings. Time, memory, and duration all come into play in works which encourage a contemplative attitude on the viewer’s part. With a doctorate on duration and time in painting, and the patient generosity of a long-term teacher, Thomas can skip effortlessly in conversation from Bergson to Heidegger to Japanese philosophy and then Korean monochrome painting in the seventies. He also has a keen interest in humour. French filmmaker Jacques Tati is important to him, not least because his films demand attention to what would otherwise be lost in the background and edges of the frame. So too the post-impressionist Pierre Bonnard whose images often include peripheral incidents. Noting that both humour and his own work relies on timing, Thomas says of his works: “They’re not lighthearted and jocular but they’re not serious all the time.”

His intellectual interests are born out of a quarter-century’s practice as a painter. “My work comes out of how paintings help me make sense of the world,” he says, “out of that pictorial tradition.” After regular solo exhibitions in Melbourne in the eighties, his work is now seen more widely in Australia and internationally. In the 1980s, Thomas was making what he calls “a type of perceptual realism, attempts to represent how I was seeing the world.” While these highly skilled paintings were popular, “sometimes the skill got in the way of content.” He changed tactics, eschewing realism for reflection so that viewers could see themselves perceiving the work. Once this happened, “you get involved with time and memory in front of the canvas.” Thomas was also taking a lot of photographs to intensify his way of seeing, and realised photography’s bond to memory. He recalls: “Photography is an interesting metaphor for that. It’s an index of something that has been. In thinking about what a photograph is, they look simple, like paintings and mirrors, but they are quite complex.”

Seeing in the photograph a point of entry to the world for the viewer, Thomas devised a way of producing composite works using reflection, painting and photography. Working with large prints of photographs he has taken, he overpaints selected areas of them with enamel paint in bands or rectangular blocks. What results is a disruption to the homogeneity of the photographic image through the presence of the paint, which also registers tiny imperfections and dust on its surface. In large areas, the enamel makes a reflective surface and through its mirroring, the viewer and the contingencies of real space and time that exist for the viewer in front of the photograph all come into play in looking at the work. Needless to say, these contingencies – changing light, the fall of shadows, and play of reflections – become, moment to moment, part of the work itself.

Thomas sets up a play of temporalities: the instant of the photograph, the brush’s drag across its surface, the stasis of the stilled moment, the unfolding now reflected in the paint’s gloss. In the 2005 Amid History series, shown as part of his exhibition Composites and Photopaintings at Conny Dietzschold Gallery, he amplified this by using the historically loaded subject of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, variously a symbol of peace, national defeat and humiliation (twice), Nazi power, post-war division, and most recently, national unity and Communism’s fall. Here, a holiday-snap quality image of the Berlin landmark has been partially masked by a gloss black rectangle. “As soon as you put a black field across,” Thomas explains, “you disrupt that reading of what it is. The mirroring makes you deal with the space in front of the image because if you look at it you see yourself. The smaller matt black area in the top corner sets up a pictorial dynamic with the black feet in the photograph. It’s a different kind of order, you set up a balance between how we deal with memory in creating perception.” He compares the reflective area to a monochrome, calling it “an interval in the everydayness of the world. It creates a space where you can hopefully reflect on yourself being in the world. The viewer is placed amid history and asked how we deal with it.”

The interruption of the photographic image is a staple of contemporary practice. Australian photographer Geoff Kleem uses this procedure as does John Baldessari, where the effects are nearly always cornball. One of the distinctive features of Thomas’s work is the way photography folds back on itself. The glossed sheen of paint inevitably reflects the photographer whose job it is to record the final work for reproduction. And, considering the photographer a stand-in for the spectator, we might say that the viewer always registers in any reproduction of the work. This is particularly true of Amid Nature Grey and Amid Nature (both 2005) where the central, blurred image of the photographer exercises a vertiginous pull. Seeing the works in the flesh, one’s own reflection is similarly inescapable.

As much as photography folds in on itself in these works, they are also unphotographable in any pure state: the photographer/viewer cannot be erased. For Thomas this is not a problem because “the experience in front of them is critical. That’s why I moved toward installation work, so that the viewer would be unquestioningly amid the work.” In 2004, Thomas staged the Duration of Light installation at RMIT’s Project Space Spare Room. The outside of the gallery’s window was painted with a large black rectangle, fronting the street; inside, monochromes were strategically installed, and a small room painted entirely in yellow. The intervention in the streetscape by simple means recalls Daniel Buren; the enveloping perceptual atmosphere of light and colour inside the gallery suggests Robert Irwin, but for Thomas there is no simple opposition between the situational/political interests of the former and the perceptual/aesthetic ambition of the latter. “They are both people I have considered strongly,” he says. “We want to simplify issues and set up old dichotomies rather than understanding these exist in contexts that are complex. I’m interested in understanding complexity through simple means.”

Works From this Century… comprises pieces made within the last two years. In addition to the composite photopaintings, Thomas includes large Reflection Paintings in Time and Space, a group of what he calls “Slightly Odd Paintings” and two sets of Slowly Adjusted Paintings: Monochromes in the Duration of Time. The reflection paintings use black enamel gloss on canvas or panel and, lacking the photographic base of the photopaintings, they direct attention solely to the mirroring capabilities of the paint, which inevitably also records the traces of its application by brush. Notable here is Here and Here Now and Now which uses vertical bands of black reflective paint on a white ground to set up a process of perceptual play. Thomas’s deliberately modest “Slightly Odd Paintings” work like gentle punctuation points: Each looks almost correct but every squared stretcher is slightly off kilter, as is its placement on the wall.

In the Slowly Adjusted Paintings… Thomas differentiates surface and colour, with one work revealing the traces of its making through the surface, and the other exploiting colour’s capacity to alter perception, so that the work, in Thomas’s words, “situates a colour field in time and space.” Thomas jokes that the title refers not only to the fact that these works take a long time for him to make, it also acknowledges the weight of the monochrome in art history.

Colour is the monochrome’s principal formal means and, discussing one of his reflection paintings, A Big Black Square, Thomas notes the loadedness of colour itself. “Colours have changed meaning over time,” he says, observing that when some of his photopaintings were shown in Sydney, his use of black was seen as censoring. While this is not its central purpose in these works, Thomas is more willing to acknowledge black’s complexity than dismiss the Sydney view out of hand. He continues: “In one sense, black is the mix of all pigments, but there is an ongoing question in art history: is black a colour? Is it essential to form? In terms of pigmented form, black is everything, but when you mix colours in light, you get white.” Later this year viewers will get a chance to see Thomas’s further thoughts on black and other colours in a solo exhibition, Movement of Colour in Time and Space at Conny Dietzschold in Sydney and at Melbourne’s Centre for Contemporary Photography. Here 600 glossy snapshots with black rectangles on them will cover three tabletops like glossy tiles capable of mirroring passing clouds. Here, black disappears in reflection and catching light, becomes silver white but only the viewer, standing in what Thomas might call the here-andnow of the work, will notice this momentary transformation.



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