I’ve no desire to replicate what exists right in front of me, it’s already there. I need to invent new worlds that transcend reality as we know it. Worlds where organic life and beings are regenerated into something “other”. Continuum. The enchanted mysteries of what may lie ahead. The uncertain treachery of such places . .this is the stuff that fuels me. Tracy Thomson
Surfaces that shimmer in and out of recognition, abstraction coalescing into depicted motifs planted like allegorical markers in fields of collaged line, shape, colour and texture, and all factured with the methodology of their making – Tracy Thomson’s paintings take us on a journey to imagined worlds that speak to the power of Painting to reconfigure our interior mental landscape and deepen our understanding of the world we live in.
The conviction that Painting can be so much more than representations of quotidian reality, that it can speak to, and of, the human psyche, is central to Tracy Thomson’s practice. Her spirit is a symbolist one, sympathetic to an influential undercurrent within 20th Century modernism which manifested in movements such as Surrealism and Expressionism. Symbolism as an actual literary and art movement, emerged in late 19th Century Europe out of Romanticism, and in opposition to the Realism of Courbet and later the Impressionists, with their focus on “Modern Life”.
Perhaps the most succinct articulation of the ideas of Symbolism as a movement was penned by the poet and critic Gustave Kahn in 1888.
As to subject matter we are tired of the quotidian, the near at hand, and the compulsorily contemporaneous; we wish to be able to place the development of the symbol in any period whatsoever, and even in outright dreams (the dream being indistinguishable from life). . . . The essential aim of our art is to objectify the subjective (the externalization of the Idea) instead of subjectifying the objective (nature seen through the eyes of a temperament) Gustave Kahn
Kahn’s key concept of objectifying the subjective, advocated for an art that manifested ideas through symbolic dream-like imagery expressed as non- naturalistic compositions of line, form and colour.
It finds an echo through the centuries in Tracy Thomson’s disinterest in the mere surface appearance of reality, in, “replicating what is in front of me”, even with a subjective lens. Rather, in conjecturing, “new worlds that transcend reality”, she makes concrete – that is, “objectifies” – subjective imagined possibility through the practice and materiality of her art.
The transcendental Idealism of Immanuel Kant famously held that;
“Space and time are the framework within which the mind is constrained to construct its experience of reality”.
That is, for we humans, there can be no knowledge or cognition that is possible beyond the limits of our mind and senses. Exploring larger and wider realities beyond the conscious, Thomson, in her painting, journeys into her own interior, into memory and her own unconscious, reimagining conventional formulations of time and space, pushing to expand the mental structures that shape human understanding.
In Barbie Dreamhouse Home for the Apocalypse, time and space are reconfigured in an imaginary dreamlike space. Iconography from popular culture – in this case a “Barbie” figure – surveys a courtyard-like scene with trees and stripped down architecture or containing walls with openings through which we see a sky. All is ambiguous and enigmatic. Is the sky a flaming sunset or is it the apocalypse outside? The courtyard is sprinkled with trees and tree stumps suggesting the passage of time – or is it actually an outside “courtyard”? Thinking of Thomson’s earlier “Room” paintings, one could equally conceive of the “courtyard” as an inside room despite the trees and tree stumps placed there. In a doorway, the aforementioned “Barbie” stands with her suitcase, poised between arrival and departure, the scene she surveys, conveying both a sense of sanctuary and of metaphysical unease.
The iconography that Thomson employs ranges from the personal – even hermetic- to that which signifies widely. There is a passion for trees with all their symbolic possibility. Her iconography is relational; its potential meanings operate through adjacency, compositional structure, differences and similarities of expression, of shape, line, colour and texture. There are ambiguous rather than the fixed symbolic meanings that might pertain for example in a painting, from the Renaissance. All of the elements exist in an exquisite charged field of meaning where the depicted compositional and expressive characteristics of each element, modifies or qualifies our visual understanding of the work.
In Of Sand and Stone, an architectonic wall at the top of the painting delineates an ambiguous middle and foreground space populated with a grouping of tree trunks, the most prominent of which form a beautifully composed trinity. These are in compositional counterpoint to the tonally pale space in which they sit. The variegated faceting of this space is both an expression of the artist’s collage approach and a vehicle for the shimmering in and out of recognition of her embedded imagery – here an indication of ancient buildings, there a contemporary figure laying as if sunbathing, and then in the bottom right foreground, the image of a human head, subsumed within its surroundings like the barely perceptible figures in a Bonnard interior. Then breaking through this pale tonality is a large vibrant green area signifying foliage in a contemporary planter.
This green is, in material terms, the physical ground of the painting, and it is articulated in smaller areas elsewhere in the composition. The exposed ground in Thomson’s work is key to the layered approach of the material means by which she creates the “worlds” in her paintings. Lines and shapes are often “valleys” – breathing spaces between the applied collage elements. Her process involves multiple iterations of collage from pre- painted papers to magazine imagery, photographs to prints. These are sometimes fused with further paint application to create rich symphonic textures that manifest her constructed realities or worlds, both in a material and in a metaphorical sense.
The trees, tree stumps and the stacked branches in, If You See The Pink Tree (You’ve Gone Too Far), read as “figure” elements on a “ground”. However they are articulated as a tonally light layer, which exposes the wood material of the support, albeit thinly washed with colour. The imagery of lake, horizon and sky are realized, on the other hand, in a thicker sumptuous marriage of painted paper collage and added paint – all in the colours of a nocturne.
This material inversion of traditional painting practice adds to the dream-like sense of the work, where expectations are often turned inside out to reach a sense of deeper understanding. Around 1920, Paul Klee famously wrote that:
“Art does not reproduce the visible, rather, it makes visible”
This statement encapsulates much of Thomson’s approach to her work – that languages needs to be found beyond mere description to find true reality – that is to articulate that which we feel but can’t envisage in the quotidian everyday.
Thus, further within the collaged area in, If you See The Pink Tree (You’ve Gone Too Far), both above and below the “horizon”, there are ghost-like emanations, echoes, of ethereal forms, objects, indications of buildings and habitation. These, packed to almost suggest strata – together with the depiction of trees at various stages of their life cycle – suggest a sense of time, a sense that anything we see and experience has stories and histories and potential meanings. – and that art can bring these to visibility in service to a greater understanding of our human condition.
An inescapable element brought to visibility in this painting is a sense of disquiet or concern at environmental degradation. Packed within the strata, human detritus as well as traces of natural-world lifecycles co-exist. Environmental concerns resonate across many of Tracy Thomson’s paintings. There are paeans to the beauty, the wonder, of the natural world such as Night at the Crystal Quarry, an exquisite work on paper, and again a nocturne. It conjectures a beautiful crystalline world where natural forms have formed over millennia, and pairs it with the idea of a quarry, by definition a mining of, or exploitation of, the earth’s resources.
This Tao – like exploration of opposites to find some deeper understanding in unity, is a key underlying vein in her work. There is a fondness for nocturnes such as, Tender is the Night, Numinous Night, and, Future Projections. These and similar works suggest a sense that to get to the light, the night must be explored in its particular beauty, its space for quiet thought, contemplation and imagination. There is a indeed a recognition in Thomson’s paintings that in philosophical as well as formal terms, our world is ambiguous, complex and contradictory.
In Thin Ice, one of a number of small paintings, the ambiguity of the title is reflected in the suggestion of melting lake ice, revealing exquisitely detailed shells and rocks below, but also conveying disquiet at ice melting through global warming.
White Curtain, another of the smaller paintings, is formally a classic window painting with a foreground table and curtains flanking a view to the outside – except that the tradition is subverted with an ambiguous desert view beyond, featuring rectangular shapes and other indeterminate and mysterious “still life” forms on the table.
All elements in these paintings manifest close to the picture plane, and where distance or perspective is suggested, it is a flattened depiction in line with the material expression of the collage based methodology.
This is particularly evident in the large diptych, Ever After. Each panel depicts a large central single figure, each delineated with similar relatively flat but vibrant areas of purple, suggesting robes or loose apparel. Only the heads perhaps suggest a female figure on the left and a male on the right. These are expressed, as is the landscape behind, in collaged tonally light faceted shapes, each expressive with paint application. Again, the heads are almost subsumed into the landscape behind, like figures in a Bonnard interior, leaving the purple body areas to feature as emblems of the human figure.
A bird of paradise and a bunch of flowers held by the figure on the left and a snake (or serpent) and a mouse by the figure on the right, are the more emphasized elements of symbolic language in this work. However the landscape itself – both above and below a discernable high horizon line – is pregnant with symbolic imagery, both defined and more ambiguous. The sublimation of the two heads into this landscape seems to suggest a mystical indivisibility, a sense of oneness, between that which is human and the world in which we find ourselves.
Across her oeuvre, Tracy Thomson’s paintings map psychic landscapes, pictorial and metaphorical topographies, embodying a search for substantive meaning that seems particularly elusive in our fragmented postmodernist world. Ultimately this search is a spiritual endeavour, exploring the human condition through art, specifically through symbolism, metaphor and allegory in painting. The imagined worlds she creates through her painting are not utopias for she recognizes the “uncertain treachery of such places”. Acknowledging ambiguity, and the interconnectedness of opposites, the beauty in these works lies in the journey itself, a journey to self knowledge. Thomson’s paintings represent an uncovering, a retrieving and at the same time, symbiotically, a reconstruction, conjecturing new possibilities. This process involves a journey by the artist deep into her psyche, her knowledge, and her memory. A voyage of discovery utilizing both the conscious and the unconscious, a voyage which is nothing less than the search for an archaeology of the soul.
Written by Geoffrey Nawn, January 1st, 2024
All photographs courtesy of Tracy Thomson
© Geoffrey Nawn All Rights Reserved.
© All Photographs by Tracy Thomson All Rights Reserved
All of the paintings referred to above were exhibited at Tracy Thomson’s recent solo exhibition at Propeller Gallery, Toronto. (November 15th to December 3rd 2023.)