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Robert Thompson - Artist's Statement - Becoming Visible

For exhibition at Gilberd Marriott Gallery 12th March - 2nd April 2011

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Simplicity; a box of paints, two or three brushes, a small pad of water colour paper, a cup for water - it not only contains the water but the handle serves as a brush holder. I got a certain sense of delight with the discovery that the cup offered more than first realized. The idea of simplicity is intensified by the discovery. There are also associations with place. This cup was found in a small storage room I rented in the Overseas Terminal when I was living on our yacht here in Wellington in Chaffers marina. The whole process of making art is linked with times and places. This cup has become one of the pieces of evidence that points not only to my own history but connects my history to a wider story. The cup itself is silent yet the crest on its side WIC cafeteria service and its English maker on its base connects it to every cafeteria and railway cup throughout the country. Making connections, being alert to possibilities, recognizing significance in the smallest of details; that is the ground in which my art is seeded.

My own story began in Picton when I was three or four. Our house in Kent St had a covered front entrance where I often perched on a ledge and gazed across to Mt Frith. The light grey sky showing no evidence of rain, yet rain becoming visible as it moved across the dark face of Mt Frith, looking in the opposite direction across the open mouth of the garage a visible veil of drizzle - the invisibility and visibility of rain; and so began an enchantment in the wondrous magic of looking and seeing.

A few years later with the sentinel chatter of Port Hill's cabbage trees within my vocabulary experiencing Russell Clarke's painting of cabbage trees during a school trip to the city art gallery alerted me to the extraordinary fact that paintings held within them not only the possibility of rendering visible but connections to our audible experiences can be made. Again in the same gallery a few years later Colin McCahon's painting "Tomorrow will be the same but not as this is" opened the door to the potential of painting being able to transmit thoughts, ideas and emotions.

Yet at this stage while still at school I was not making any connection within myself to becoming a practising artist. I was intent on becoming an ornithologist.

A rather haphazard beginning at Canterbury University doing a BA (the door to ornithology closed with my lack of maths) saw me begin Art School at the age of twenty. My entry was without school art qualifications or a portfolio and could be described as slipping through the back door. An invisible entry stirred by a self belief that from my own experiences and appreciation of art I could release myself through paint.

And so the journey to becoming visible began.

It began in abstraction with the emphasis on mark making. In looking back I describe much of my career as remaining an invisible artist. There have been moments of visibility with a solo exhibition of large abstract works in the Manawatu gallery in the early eighties and in the early nineties, another solo exhibition of self portraits in the Milford gallery in Dunedin. As an artist I have displayed an intermittent pattern of persistence. There were a number of solo exhibitions in the CSA in Christchurch during the seventies and eighties. My reemergence in the early nineties saw an exhibition at the Loft gallery in Christchurch and a presence in Wellington at the Wonton Gallery. In the mid eighties a diversion into theology may have ended my art career. However the outcome was not a calling into ministry but a return to art signaled by a change from abstraction into figurative work. It was while on retreat at the Seatoun convent that I began self portraits; drawings in a journal, glimpses of my self in the small mirror on the wall of the sparsely furnished bedroom. It was in these new beginnings that the attraction to simplicity began - pencil and paper. Later on my yacht this expanded to watercolour and paper.

The works of this exhibition come from the period we were living on our yacht in Australia with the most recent from Nelson after our return to New Zealand.

I made the shift from self portraits to generic heads of men and woman, mostly men, with the use of newspaper photographs. I start with drawing from the photograph until the particular head is visually memorised and then work directly with a watercolour brush onto paper without any reference to the original photograph. This process leads to me being able to make generic heads rather than particular portraits. A further emphasis is that I work in series and although each image is complete in itself, as a series the images then create a dialogue between each other so that the sum is greater than the parts. Changing the sequence of images within the series has the potential to change the dialogue and so subtlety changes the emphasis of the narrative. I arrive at the completion of a series by editing from a larger selection of images of the same head painted within a similar palette range and similar markings. The final completion of a series comes with naming the work. Often this is not an immediate process. In some cases it takes quite a number of "return" visits over a period of time to find the name. Names vary in intensity. There is often a play on words such as in the examples of Headland, Interior, and Plain both having geographical references and other meanings. In some cases such as "West Brisbane" it is simply a location. Yet nothing is as simple as that. The west is where the sun sets; on the Australian east coast the west is the gateway to the interior of the continent. The associations and sounds of words are important to me. I like speaking out the name in conversation with the work as it lies mute on the table. When I hear an echoing reply the name is likely to fit.

During the period I was painting self portraits I retrieved aspects of my former abstract paintings and included them in my paintings. That practice has intensified as I have reduced my images to drawn marks that either delineates a head, a hieroglyph of some sort or a smudge of colour. I am often asked what are they? (the marks), why are they there? or what do they mean? It seems that the convergence of abstraction and realism in the one image is confusing for people. I would say there is no direct answer to such questions as they are misplaced questions that lead nowhere. Perhaps prompted by the presence of the head which unconsciously is given some sort of priority of meaning but that is not the case. These works are not portraits with a single focus on an individual. These are images created out of the circumstances of a particular time and place yet also are the result of a distillation of a much longer and broader history. Mark making which is the essence of drawing has always been a primary focus of my work. Line is the main verb in my image making. In one sense I am not a painter at all on the other hand I certainly do not consider myself solely a draughtsman. The closest I have come to locating myself and my work along the artistic spectrum is as a visual poet. My images are visual poems. My fear is that that sounds conceited. Yet it is the thread of anxiety, stemming from that fear, that both links me back to the expressionist tradition of last century and beyond and urges me forward into becoming visible.

Robert Thompson, March 2011


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©2011 by Gilberd Marriott Gallery, Wellington/NZ