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Sydney Morning Herald Column

Ann Thomson & Ian Gentle

Published February 3, 2024
Ann Thomson, 'Orion' (2014)

Reaching the age of 90 and remaining young is reason enough for us to celebrate Ann Thomson, but for Terence Maloon, curator of the artist’s survey at the S.H. Ervin Gallery, it’s not just a sentimental occasion. He argues forcefully that Thomson’s work “has never stood still, never lost its momentum or intensity, and has grown more robust and fearless with the passing years.”

Ann Thomson in the studio

Born in Brisbane but a long-term resident of Sydney, Thomson is a graduate of the National Art School, and a friend or pupil of major Australian artists, such as Fairweather, Passmore, Molvig, Tuckson and Olsen. She has had a long, impressive career and is still going strong. In fact, Maloon believes she’s painting better than ever.

I admire the curator’s willingness to state his convictions so passionately but can’t help wondering if he is overstating his case. The vitality of Thomson’s late work is undeniable, but it suggests a consistency that is almost structurally excluded from her spontaneous, gestural manner of painting. Looking around the exhibition at the S.H. Ervin, the line on the viewer’s mental seismograph will rise in front of some pictures and fall in front of others. It’s not a parade of unalloyed success, as some works have a much greater dynamism.

The piece I kept coming back to was Event (1998), an amazingly raw piece of painting in which a field of bright yellow is disrupted with brutal, vertical smears of blue and black, from which jets of red and white run off at a diagonal. Look more closely, and it’s clear Thomson has used several shades of yellow, allowing loosely brushed areas of white and blue at bottom right to hint at a seascape.

Ann Thomson, ‘Event’ (detail) (1998)

Landscape associations may be found in most of Thomson’s nominally abstract paintings. In Event, those associations are masked by the dominant field of yellow, which ambushes the eye. In other canvases it’s much easier to discern a horizon line, sky and foreground. In such works one can feel the artist working through her impressions, adding a patch of colour, layering forms, finding equivalents for her sensory responses.

Maloon quotes Thomson’s own maxim, “painting is composition,” then praises her as “an inveterate and virtuosic improviser.” Despite an unrelenting display of energy, this process of improvisation usually takes place in an orderly fashion. One line leads to another, a first colour influences the choice of a second. These pictures may appear to be dashed off, but Thomson is methodical in her approach.

This is most apparent in works such as Samurai I (2008), Geisha (2011) and Compound Interest (2020) (great title!). Separated from each other by a decade at a time, these paintings have a family likeness in the use of brown, tarred paper as background, allowing lines and splashes of colour to stand out vividly.

Ann Thomson, ‘Transon’ (2023)

This innate sense of composition may be seen as a virtue, but it diminishes the elements of surprise and spontaneity. On the other hand, there are works such as Future Landscape (2023), in which the composition seems to have gotten away from the artist, requiring her to redeeem it with collaged slabs of painted paper. The sharp disjunctions create a quasi-Cubist effect, in which the landscape is broken into fragments.

Another stand-out is Orion (2014), where layer upon layer of coloured patches has been added with frantic repetition. Method has given way to mania, and the painting almost pulsates.

If one looks at the works reproduced in Anna Johnson’s 2012 monograph, one can see how Thomson has loosened up over the years. Many of her major pictures of the 1980s and 90s are painstaking in their level of detail and overworking. The colour in these paintings can get muddy, as Thomson dives back in repeatedly, but there’s a huge investment of time and effort. Maloon seems to be arguing that in the recent years this compositional tussle has become second nature, allowing Thomson to paint with more freedom and less anxiety.

Ann Thomson, ‘Transcending’ (2016)

It would have been good to have a couple of big paintings from the 1980s-90s included in the show to allow us to test this thesis. There is one even earlier picture, Sydney Waterfront II (1980) which features boats on the harbour, but the gap between this work and the most recent paintings is too vast to be bridged. The same might be said about the paintings and Thomson’s assemblage-type sculptures, which feel like the work of two different artists.

What I’m edging towards is the idea that Thomson’s paintings are at their best when the level of control is most intense, as in some of the large works of the 80s and 90s; or when she transcends that state of confident improvisation and is obliged to resolve a crisis. More than most artists, Thomson dramatises the problem of “control” that all artists face. Too much control can make for a very staid work of art, too little is just a mess. In Thomson’s lesser pictures all the activity happens on the surface; in the best of them one can feel the struggle involved, the tight-rope walk that keeps the painter – and the viewer – focussed on every flick of the brush. In her ninth decade, Thomson may have earned the right to feel a bit more relaxed and confident, but she still knows what it’s like to take risks.

 

 

All artists should be so lucky as Ian Gentle, to have such a loyal group of friends and admirers, determined to keep your memory alive. It’s been more than fourteen years since Gentle died at his home in Nowra, watching the cricket on TV. (For the record, Australia beat Pakistan by 170 runs.)

Ian Gentle 1945-2009

Born in Melbourne in 1945, Gentle would spend his early twenties working in Mt. Isa and the Northern Territory. By the time he enrolled at the National Art School in 1976, he had seen six years of art studies at TAFE and a lot of living. Older than most of his peers, and more extroverted than any of them, Gentle quickly became known as a personality. It was a reputation he would cultivate with his antics but play down when it became a distraction from his artistic achievements.

For another month, Wollongong Art Gallery and the Clifton School of Arts, are hosting memorial exhibitions of Gentle’s work. I’ve haven’t been able to see the latter show yet, but I can’t delay writing any longer. The venue in the tiny hamlet of Clifton is the building that served as the artist’s studio from 1986-96. Nowadays it has been lovingly restored, but it was once a kind of magical ruin – shabby, damp, ramshackle, filled with artworks in various stages of completion.

The entire package, under the label, The Gentle Project, has been put together by filmmaker, David Roach, and a group of willing volunteers, made up of the artist’s friends, peers and students.

Ian Gentle, ‘Dancing Turtle’ (1988)

The WAG’s exhibition is called Horny Sticks and Whispering lines, in reference to Gentle’s distinctive brand of linear sculpture, made from eucalyptus branches invisibly joined to create semi-abstract evocations of animals, people and the Bush. There’s also a satellite show of work by 14 close friends and former students, called A Gentle Response.

One of these friends, Noel Thurgate, recalls Gentle’s credo that “the life of an artist was all or nothing.” In practice, this meant refusing to draw a line between art and life. With his bald head and bushranger beard, his fondness for a beer and a smoke, there was nothing arty or affected about Gentle. The very definition of a rough diamond, he had a surprisingly refined aesthetic sensibility, everywhere apparent in the Wollongong display.

Ian Gentle, ‘Dagg in Duckboat’ (1987)

I remember seeing his work for the first time at the old Macquarie Galleries decades ago, and it looks just as fresh today. Playful and beautifully constructed, Gentle’s sculptures have a graphic quality, suggestive of three-dimensional drawings. This is given added emphasis when pieces are arranged to cast shadows on the gallery walls. Typical works such as Dancing Turtle (1988) or Dagg in Duckboat (1987) are notable for their simplicity, their condensed, ambiguous imagery, and their comical overtones.

The most elaborate work is Low life (1985), a multi-layered painting that owes a debt to Ian Fairweather, accompanied by a homemade pitchfork. It’s almost as if Gentle is inviting us to take up the fork and scoop out all those tangled lines that snake back and forth across the canvas.

Ian Gentle, ‘Low Life’ (1985)

It would take a hard heart not to be touched by this tribute to a unique figure, whose work will endure as long as the bush itself. Today one could make a case for Gentle as an environmental artist, but that seems altogether too respectable for someone so fondly remembered as a larrikin. It would be a great improvement on the quality of today’s issue-based contemporary art if those who profess to love the planet could match Gentle’s love of life.

 

 

 

 

 

Ann Thomson

S.H. Ervin Gallery, 2 January – 3 March 2024

 

Ian Gentle: Horny Sticks and Whispering Lines

Wollongong Art Gallery, 2 December 2023 – 3 March 2024

The Gentle Project, Clifton School of Arts, 3 December 2023 – 3 March 2024

 

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 3 February, 2024