Michael Thompson: Drawing
catalogue essay by Tom Smart.
Thompson first came to notice in the mid-1970s as an artist with a parallel practice comprising lusciously textured paintings that open onto vast imaginative spaces whose depths and intervals could be sculpted in soft media. In his drawing too, Thompson created painstaking renderings of building facades, streetscapes, automobiles and languorous figures. Taken as a whole, his paintings and drawings are quietly provocative and earthy, pointing to a kind of quizzical hermeticism that masks something unknown.
Thompson quickly declared himself as an artist whose work is fundamentally anthropomorphic, even when his subject matter is not by or about the human form. Certainly his paintings and drawings involving human models underline an obvious affection for figuration. Yet, in the way he composes a sequence of windows, makes a graded tone on the grillwork of a vintage automobile, or turns a line to define the edges of a down-filled comforter, Thompson demonstrates his high qualifications as a figurative artist of another order, able to re-cast brick, metal and stone into the appearance of soft-tissues imbued with spirit, consciousness and perhaps even neuroses of their own.
If there is a cadence to the development of his work, it resembles an arc shaped by the exploration of the symbolic potential of poetic indirection, an elastic literary and artistic device holding magical qualities that can turn one thing or another into something else right before our eyes. The viewer who is most rewarded by participating in Thompson’s oblique routing to meaning must be able to intuit his real content. Although free to take his subject matter at face value, there is much more than meets the eye in a Thompson composition.
This exhibition of new drawings, created over the past two years, offers some twenty pieces that, while encapsulating his familiar subjects, shows how he is developing his personal iconographic portfolio in subtle, distinct ways — and advancing it through drawing. He considers draughtsmanship a unique and media-specific way to express himself by choreographing tonal values and graphite lines to describe recognizable imagery in ways that chromatic painting does not immediately allow. As this exhibition demonstrates, Thompson refuses to consider drawings as dress rehearsals for paintings, but rather as autonomous means of personal expression.
Born in Montreal in 1954, Thompson studied Fine Art at Concordia University where he graduated in 1976 with his BFA, and in 1978 with a graduate degree in Fine Arts. An exhibiting artist since then, Thompson was quickly folded into the discussion about contemporary realisms in Canadian art, and was seen as both an acolyte and heir to a tradition then being developed by Alex Colville, Jack Chambers and Mary Pratt.
He learned much from this triumvirate. Colville’s work provided him with a vocabulary that blended technical precision with uncanny, mystifying subject matter. A Thompson composition, easily read and digested, betrays a Colvillian elusiveness, never entirely surrendering clearly legible meaning, but rather setting a stage for feelings of disquiet and uneasiness radiating from the compositions.
Chambers’ complex theories of perceptualism, and his mode of realism that branched out from shared roots of modern Spanish painters Antonio López-García, María Moreno and Isabel Quintanilla, informed Thompson’s practical painterly and drawing methods. In particular, the Spanish creative process filtered through the realism of Chambers offered Thompson much to emulate. He mirrored his personal style on their organic method for defining recognizable imagery that seems to grow from highly textured or tonally complex grounds. This particularly suited Thompson’s graphic sensibility that preferred to have graded tones define space and form more than line alone. This lent his pictures their atmosphere and sensual auras because hard contour lines rarely differentiate forms, nor delineate exact edges. The imaginative spaces behind Thompson’s picture planes have ambiences that are constructed almost entirely from dense accumulations of tones and subtle lights.
From Pratt, Thompson, perhaps intuitively, developed a way to imbue the commonplace and the human figure with unsettling allusiveness. An unmade bed, a table setting, or a bowl of cut fruit, are not matter-of-fact still life renderings in a Pratt painting. Rather they can be read as complex, indirect metaphors of human relationships, of personal confrontations and of sexual politics. Thompson developed his manner in a way to load an apparently simple, direct subject — a cup of coffee, for example — with layers of meaning that point away from the subject itself. Just as Pratt expanded the potential meanings of ordinary things, so too, Thompson allowed for expansiveness in the possible readings of his imagery.
The shadows of these modern realists are discernible in Thompson’s new drawings. Ostensibly the subjects can be grouped into the three categories of details of variations involving a single female model, building exteriors, and still life drawings. In several, the categories overlap with the female model sharing the stage with an exquisitely rendered still life — an automobile or couch, for example. A building’s brick and glass textures, serve as armatures for studies in the effects of light reflecting off the materials or illuminating the dense air around its corner or in one of its rooms seen through an opaque pane of glass. A matter-of-fact profile portrait of a dog; a simple yet formally complex study of a cup; the indented folds on an unmade bed, all point to what is there and what is absent in the composition to the extent that Thompson is revealed as an artist whose true intentions for the most part go unexplained. The viewer is left in a position to parse the signs and symbols for clues to the meaning of the drawings, and, in fact, to where the meaning even resides — in the subject matter, in the medium itself, or in a zone somewhere between the two.
In Thompson’s drawings there is a theory bound up in the marriage of subject and method: reconciling reality with desire. If there is a single principle in these tonal essays it is a dedication to craft as a means to fathom the depth of mystery. Reading a Thompson drawing is a complicated act of negotiating the way the art object itself is made, the materials of its making, and the implications of the way media is put down on paper as a first step to decoding the imagery. If all goes well, there is a satisfying sense of completeness; the reading itself reveals the congruency between method and meaning, and the nature of the desire.
From this abstract, process-based beginning, Thompson overlays this compositional architecture with this female figure whose insouciant, distracted gaze challenges and rebuffs the viewer at the same time. Thompson coaxes into visibility what we see as a trace encounter between artist and model, and between the conscious manipulation of media and the unconscious liaison with his creative muse. It is as if in the process of incarnation, this woman is both an actual presence and a manifestation of a memory coaxed into the light by the artist. In other words, the automatic process that began the artistic activity is overlaid with deliberateness giving the drawing a frisson of tension between an impulse to mimesis and a trust in the creative process that is abstract at its core. The drawing is the reconciliation of reality with desire, with the actual and the imagined, and with the public gaze and the private challenge expertly expressed in the open and closed attitude of the model conjured from the tones on this piece of paper.