Michael Thompson, “Priest and Black Dog”
catalogue essay Dr. Eva Seidner.
In the early 1980s, Thompson devoted a series of drawings and paintings to Mary Suha, an empress of punk culture who frequented the grungy Yonge Street strip. A reviewer at the time dubbed these works “leather realism.” Kitted out in black and bristling with Goth accessories—spiked hair, piercings, chains, studded cuffs and dangling handcuffs—Thompson’s model encountered on the street would have seemed the very embodiment of aggression and danger. Yet the artist posed and situated her so as to reveal her vulnerability and disillusionment, visible through the trappings of defiance and rebellion. She is wholly herself in these works, and she is also representative of something in each one of us.
However, certain details are discordant and disturbing. The retaining walls of the pond are crumbling, suggesting an erosion of faith, in particular faith in formal religious institutions. Thompson’s treatment of the dark water, bracketed by reeds and water lilies, reminds me of the brook in which John Everett Millais placed his drowned Ophelia, whose suicide would have automatically barred her soul’s entry into eternity, according to Church law. Certainly the black pond in Thompson’s painting appears treacherous and sinister, evoking not the waters of life but the oblivion of death.
Thompson places his trio of figures on the far side of this threatening divide, high up in the composition. They appear remote, indeed inaccessible, as we look up at them from the lower ground which is our vantage point. But most important are the position and gesture of the young priest. Hanging back from the others, he is excluded from their conversation. His posture is one of apparent humility and deference to the older men, but what is most conspicuous is his separation from them and his acknowledgement of us, the viewers. Looking directly at us, he seems to issue some kind of warning or caution. Have we, perhaps, intruded into territory where we are not welcome? Or does his glance signify something altogether different? Is it a kind of ironic aside?
This work is, indeed, something quite other than a straightforward depiction of religious devotion and brotherhood, just as the imagery of dissolution suggests. Thompson has said that his models for the aging priests were two of his friends who were not practising Catholics. The model for the young priest was Thompson himself, who had abandoned formal religion years earlier, “when [he] reached the age of reason.” All three men donned their cassocks purely in the pursuit of a secular work of art which deftly rejects codified religion, and the irony of this situation imbues the painting.
“Priests” is a forerunner of “Priest and Black Dog,” the work in the present exhibition. Once again, Thompson is his own model, dressed as a Catholic priest. However here the imagery has been pared down to a few salient elements and the model-viewer relationship is more intimate and sharply focused, unmitigated by the presence of other figures or by an elaborated landscape setting. What we see is the unembellished totality of a cloistered world. The black cassock is no longer an ironic disguise but a metaphor in which the idea of strict adherence to one’s calling is central. Catholic priests, unlike their Anglican counterparts, may not marry and they must remain separate from worldly entanglements which deflect their attention from their service to God. Thompson transposes the concept of complete religious devotion into his secular world, where it is art which is his true vocation. This subtle work conveys the monastic intensity with which the artist lives his life.
He walks a straight and narrow path which is studded with stones. To his immediate right is a high and apparently endless wall, extending beyond the top and both sides of the canvas. The wall has a ledge, but it is too low to enable anyone to climb over. It has a gap underneath, but the gap is too narrow for anyone to crawl through. The infinite expanse of Thompson’s wall reminds me of the infinite nature of the divine Spirit in the gospel song, “Rock my Soul in the Bosom of Abraham”: “So high, can’t get over it / So low, can’t get under it / So wide, can’t get around it.”
Implied but not shown is the opposite wall which completes the enclosure where the priest will dedicate his days to fulfilling the demands of his calling. And it is inside this other wall where we too stand, observing him as he glances momentarily back at us. We stand at his level, on common ground and quite close to him, uncomfortably close, both for him and for ourselves. His preoccupied expression as he stops in mid-stride signals the fact that we have interrupted his meditation on a troubling problem or his pursuit of an elusive idea. We are intruders and outsiders, in his world for a time, but not of it.
He does, however, have a companion. The priest’s dog walks so closely by his side that their shadows merge, and in terms of the painting’s palette and composition, the two function as almost a single, central figure. (The image strongly evokes Alex Colville’s “Dog and Priest.”) Many of us automatically associate dogs with loyalty and friendship, and sometimes with obedience. Certainly the animal in this painting seems content in the priest’s company, keeping pace with him or stopping, as the man decides, and doing so willingly, without being tethered to a leash. Thompson’s ironic cast of mind seems playful here, as the viewer notices that it is the man, not the beast, who is wearing the collar.
But as always in this artist’s work, outward appearances are misleading. Black dogs appear throughout Western literature and visual arts as symbols of depression and self-doubt, and as harbingers of death. Robert Burton makes extensive metaphorical reference to black dogs in his Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), for example, and William Styron uses the same image to describe his nearly fatal depression in Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness (1990). These dark symbolic associations counterbalance our first impression of the priest’s dog as a simple embodiment of man’s best friend. And they are key to our understanding of the ambiguous relationship in this painting between man and beast, and between seeming and being. For what we may be tempted to see as a sentimental attachment is in fact a kind of existential acceptance, an acknowledgement on the part of the priest of the unalterable fact that life and death always travel together. However conscientiously the priest follows his path, he is a mortal man. Someday he will reach the end of his road, and the black dog, eternally in its prime, will become someone else’s companion. This is perhaps why the animal takes no notice of the viewer’s intrusion but continues to look forward, alert to something that lies ahead— something the priest may not yet see, or may not wish to.
Thompson does not flinch from showing us his alter ego as a man well into his middle age. In conversation, he acknowledges that he is now about the same age as his friends were when they posed for “Priests,” and since that time both men have died. While his pose in “Priest and Black Dog” is identical to the one in “Priests,” the effect on the viewer of the later painting is entirely different. Whereas the young man was coolly ironic, his grey-haired incarnation, with his clenched jaw and furrowed brow, looks severe and impatient. He projects a sense of urgency, an eagerness to resume his thoughts and work, which the viewer has interrupted. Even his hands do not seem comfortable, clasped in idleness behind his back. The fierce brightness of the sun on his forehead reminds him that every moment is luminous with possibility, and so every moment demands his complete attention and engagement.
There is much to admire in this painting, and much I have not explored in detail here, such as Thompson’s meticulous brushwork and intricate layering of colours and glazes. From a distance the palette has a restrained and muted look, appropriate to the theme of the artist’s controlled life and contained world. Beiges, browns and blacks predominate, the lighter colours proceeding downward from the top of the wall (enlivened by the strong vertical lines of its planks) and gradually darkening until they meet the horizontal band which defines the shadow cast by the ledge near the wall’s base. A second dark horizontal band indicates the gap beneath the wall, below which stretches the path. Tonally, the painting becomes increasingly “heavy” as it moves downward toward the earth. The centrally placed priest and dog are mostly black (except for the priest’s skin tones), with the single strong exception of his narrow white collar, a thematic and visual focal point of the work.
But stand up close and you see various yellows, blues, greens, oranges and other colours delicately shining through myriad layers of transparent glaze. We may not consciously register all this from a distance, but we do see it, and it subtly plays on our perceptions. The black of the dog, for example, is not the black of the priest’s cassock. Looking closely at the dog’s back, we see that the sun illuminates all kinds of warm colours, which have been applied in brushstrokes as fine as individual hairs and in the direction in which the dog’s coat would naturally grow. We can almost feel how warm and soft the animal would be to the touch, how strong and full of life—a life which is, ironically, preternatural. The black of the priest’s cassock is, by way of contrast, flatter and less vibrant, partly because Thompson is rendering cloth rather than an oily coat of dog hair, and partly because the priest’s life of sustained habit is finite and earthbound.
Thompson’s painting has the intensity and concentration of a poem. There is nothing extra here, no dissembling or embellishment. The artist offers us the distilled experience of his personal confession, along with a sharp moment of insight into how it feels to inhabit his life. This bravely candid work frames the question which confronts us all: In the time I have been granted, will I succeed in saying all I have to say?
Dr. Eva Seidner
copyright Dr. Eva Seidner 2015. From the
exhibition catalogue “Artist and Model,”
copyright Mira Godard Gallery, 2015.