Review: David Thomas at Nellie Castan - April 2007

Dr Thomas looks very serious on the cover of the latest edition of Art Collector. As well he might – he has staged a serious installation of paintings and what he calls "photo-paintings" at Nellie Castan Gallery. In his AC interview Thomas refers to the importance of humour in his work. There might be some puns if you look hard, and some of the titles are certainly whimsical. But this isn’t exactly Buster Keaton.

The show is enhanced by a sensitive hang which at times almost has the effect of an intervention into the space. This produces some quite subtle effects combining at times to give the impression that the whole space is incorporated into the work and vice versa. In particular, some of the 'slightly odd' paintings draw attention to the lighting of the space and the placement of switches, air-conditioning controls, lighting fixtures and other pieces of typical gallery infrastructure which are usually unconsciously erased by the viewer.

Theatrical but also visual
Thomas’ works rely on interaction with the viewer to function fully. Standing in front of large scale works the viewer sees their own reflection as well as the room they are occupying. In this way the viewer's conscious experience of being in time and space (Thomas would say 'amid') is literally incorporated in the work. Fried would call this theatrical and indeed it is, in the same way as the minimalism of Morris, Judd et al was theatrical. The works are a spectacle which unfolds as the viewer participates in each work. This is to be contrasted with works which exist as discrete formal entities and in effect do not rely on the participation of a viewer to become an artwork. The relationship to minimalism, through the participation of the viewer and the activation of the space the works occupy, is challenging in an exhibition as dense and wide ranging as this, but with a bit of effort this becomes a very satisfying and engaging aspect of the show. However, Thomas' works are not pure minimalism. They are layered - the recurring black monochrome field functions both as a reflective surface and as a compositional element within the painting. The stripe paintings seem closest to Barnett Newman and in several of the works the lack of illusionism draws attention to the authorial signature in a way more related to expressionism.

Photography and painting
The photo-paintings are a particularly complex part of this show. Despite the apparent simplicity of applying a masked area of monochrome to a photo, this straightforward act of creation generates many ideas. A photograph is a chemical record of light over a period of time. Thomas’ choice of photographs, which appear to be holiday snaps, emphasise the role of a photograph as a metaphor for memories of time and place. They put one in mind of the unfortunate residents of a burned house remarking “we’ve lost so many memories”, usually meaning bric-a-brac and photographs. The application of paint to the photograph creates a hybrid work in two media. These media have had a troubled relationship since photography – indeed the lens itself – was invented. Thomas’ use of monochrome rectangles draws attention to formal elements of the snaps – the repetition of a black rectangle in windows, legs, doors etc – as well as the format of the photograph as we know it.

The formalist painting of the 1960’s and 70s to which this refers are part of a tradition of abstract painting which partly stems from a reaction to photography. The work entitled [] has smeared marks strongly reminiscent of the abstract works of Richter – one of the artists to have made the most significant contribution to the field of enquiry about the relationship of painting to photography. Thomas’ description of these works as photo-paintings imply that he has resolved the tensions between the different media and generated a new type of artwork, the offspring of that troubled union. Perhaps this claim is justified – the works are authoritative and visually satisfying.

Satisfaction and Tension
Part of the satisfaction in these works stems from the continued tension that exist within the photo-paintings – the paint clearly sits on the photograph so that the holiday snap becomes the support for the surface of the painting. The result is that the painting component is working to create an effect which alters the viewers relationship with the photograph beneath - painting is privileged in this relationship. This privileging is underlined by the context of the show in which various properties of painting are exploited to create phenomenological effects.

Perhaps a more subtle rebalancing of this tussle between photography and painting occurs in the life of these works beyond the exhibition. Thomas ensures that the documentation includes the reflection of the photographer. This means that works continue to function in reproduced form, the photograph becoming a painting, reuniting with a photographer and becoming a photograph once more.

On a journey through time and space
This control of the documentation underlines the most interesting parts of this show – the idea of duration in time and space. The works extend beyond the two dimensional surface of the paint, both into the pictorial depth of the photograph and the reflected depth of the gallery. The works also extend in time both backwards through repeated signs of the process involved in creating the works, through the recurring present by including the live reflection of the viewer and into the future through the careful management of the reproduction of the works.

for more details of David Thomas's exhibition , please vist here

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By Sam Leach

Sam Leach

Leach is an artist living and working in Melbourne. He was born in Adelaide in 1973 and moved to Melbourne in the early 90s. Leach completed his honours degree in painting at RMIT in 2004 and is currently doing his masters. In 2006 Leach won the Metro5 prize and the Geelong contemporary art prize. This year he was a finalist in the Archibald. Leach shows at Nellie Castan gallery in Melbourne (show coming up in June) and Sullivan and Strumpf gallery in Sydney