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Letter from LONDON: JON THOMPSON, Paintings from The Toronto Cycle

Anthony Reynolds Gallery
November 12–December 19, 2009

Jon Thompson,
Jon Thompson, "Toronto Cycle #6--Northern Lights, Red" (2009). Oil and acrylic on canvas, 178 x152.5 cm. Courtesy Anthony Reynolds Gallery, London.

In another age and another country, Jon Thompson could have been mistaken for either a pattern painter or an Op artist. He is in fact neither, though the appearance of his current work would surely attract fans of both those approaches. Unfortunately for Thompson, over the years he has been critically regarded in this country more for his curating, writing, and educational work than his art. Like John Baldessari at CalArts, Thompson, together with Michael Craig-Martin at Goldsmiths, was a key influence on a younger group of artists, in Thompson’s case the YBA generation. As a curator he has also been a supporter of outsider art in this country, resulting in two large exhibitions at the Hayward and the Whitechapel: Falls the Shadow (1986) and Inner Worlds Outside (2006) respectively.

Jon Thompson,
Jon Thompson, "The Toronto Cycle #9--Absent Roots--Two Fold" (2009). Oil and acrylic on canvas, 177.8 x 152.4 cm. Courtesy Anthony Reynolds Gallery, London.

In the past his own art has moved from painting to a conceptual photography and sculpture, but since his retirement from teaching Thompson has been concentrating on a kind of abstract painting. In his last exhibition he presented a series of paintings with structures drawn from patterns, predominately of dots and a kind of crosshatching. The earliest paintings in this current group, The Toronto Cycle, which are unfortunately not on display, continue with fields of dots or “holes” as he calls them. The entire cycle is inspired by the pianist Glenn Gould (hence the reference to Toronto, Gould’s lifelong home). Of these earlier paintings he writes, “I have tried to get Gould’s skittish sense of distribution into the new paintings by using two proportionally related grids, one oriented vertically and the other horizontally, as a way of controlling the distribution of the two different patterns of coloured ‘holes.’ They are absolutely not ‘spots.’ My ‘holes’ have an entirely different relationship to the ground—the very opposite of the figure field relationship that occurs with spots—they have no easily describable spatial location—they are not simply ‘in front of the ground.’” In appearance, the entire group recalls the early dot paintings of Larry Poons or the stripes of Frank Stella, and even the crosshatchings of Jasper Johns. As opposed to Stella’s ideas of edging out space, these works seem to use pattern as a vehicle for another kind of content—as Johns does with hatching to suggest the idea of “Scent.”

On display are paintings in the form of a “shock wave” or an uneven, serrated line pattern that could be read as repeating as our eyes move down the canvas. But Thompson seems to denature or mutate the repetition, as if he were allowing the unevenness of his thinking or structuring to take hold in the paintings’ forms. In the gallery he has also appended a quote by Gould, “Beethoven was actually playing with absent roots [...] roots that were not actually sounded in all cases but which produced an absolute mathematical correspondence...Drawing on the teaching of Sechter [...] [one] could have a certain cluster [of notes] and there would be one note absent from it that was the key to its function as a cluster, the key to where it was going and point from which it had come.” The group on display in the downstairs space has a subtitle, “absent roots.” Each of these Toronto paintings consists of three colours: two stripes or waves painted on a ground that also forms a thin frame of colour around the edge of the work. The absent root, however, is the fourth colour, which flickers between the two hard-edge bands of colour—it is an optical effect. These could be construed to be an Op Art pattern, as if one were staring at the isometric design of some wonky staircase. The “design” is graphic, Op and Pop. It is loud and glaring, but on observation, subtle in its gradually shifting logic. I am thinking of a logic of colour and one of design. Note that Thompson is not striving for a Vasarely-type effect; however, this optical quality or absent root is a key component of what he is seeking. The absent root could also be an allusion to a kind of visual intelligence, rather than a conceptual one. The graphic and “loud” quality of this group of paintings perhaps overshadows and distracts us from the subtlety that the work advocates.

These three paintings in the lower gallery, the “Absent Root” group, have an additional permutation: folds. One fold, two folds, three folds—these are trompe l’oeil disruptions in the pattern, but also I feel another kind of disruption to the thinking or logic of the visual structure. It is still a flat painting with a seemingly hard-edge pattern, but disrupted, as if a fragment of the same pattern were laid over it; they could be folds in time, they are certainly folds in logic, but they are not matter-of-fact, as in Stella’s “what you see is what you see.” Rather, Thompson’s thinking, I believe, allows an element of time to enter and thus contradicts the presentness of this hard-edge language. The works upstairs, subtitled “Northern Lights,” offer another kind of change: in addition to the shifting or mutating pattern, the colours gradually shift chroma or hue as they move down the canvas. Perhaps a hint of the flickering aurora borealis? Or a reference to the novel by Philip Pullman? With Gould as a muse, Thompson’s graphic abstraction is not quite about seeing what you get. There is, as he says, a sense of place, perhaps time, and, of course, abstraction’s language.


Sherman Sam

Sherman Sam is a writer and artist based in London and Singapore.


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