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Estelle Thompson | Artist of the day at Flowers Gallery

23 June 2016

A review by Laurence Noga

©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock  All rights reserved.

In selecting the work of Estelle Thompson, Lisa Milroy asks questions concerning order, sequence, and structural relationships. The construction of these new works starts with panels that are slightly smaller (50cm x 30cm) than Thompson’s earlier work. The works manipulate our participation through the mysterious intensity of their vertical compositional devices, which directly elicit a human response. The resonance of the colour in some way dictates the structure and the logic, but the effect is consistently combined with subtle illusory pictorial experiments, such as the ground colour hovering beneath the surface structure, like a belief system. It feels critical for Thompson that there is a sense of the peripheral, both visually, and through the sense of sound that echoes throughout the gallery space.

In this current phase of Thompson’s work there seems to be a search for some kind of continuous present. This approach perhaps aligns itself to Barnett Newman or Bridget Riley, in the sense of what is being transmitted, or received. But in a recent conversation, Thompson’s thoughts were drawn towards Paul Cezanne; specifically, the 2015 book by Christopher Lloyd outlining Cezanne’s approach to watercolour, and his search for rationality through his sketchbooks and drawing. Often Cezanne explores a colour sense that tends towards the murky quality initiated by Manet, but for Thompson his watercolours have a lightness of touch and a spatial personality that she seeks to explore.

Lighten Up Yourself, 2016, oil on panel, 50cm x 30cm. Courtesy of the artist and Flowers Gallery.

Thompson has always been moved by the idea of collective memory, and how it influences her own notions of colour. Each painting retains a sense of infinite possibilities, multiple options and conscious rotations, which are reflections of the natural world. Lighten Up Yourself (2016 oil on panel) has an enormity of scale, despite its intimate nature. Its composition perhaps recognizes works like Hans Hoffman’s  Cathedral (1959) or Patrick Heron’s Garden Leaves (1955), in the way they entice the viewer in, through a sense of control. But Thompson combines this with a lightness of touch (which she might be asking of Cezanne, in the work’s title), and the same specificity of execution and composure that Lloyd describes when writing about Cezanne.

Dipping his brush into the water, Cezanne was committed to the single brush-mark. I get that same kind of certainty with Thompson’s approach, which calls to mind Cezanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire Seen from les Lauves, with its visible tension in the combustible construction of the picture plane.

Thoughts that Gather Up (2016), oil on panel, 50cm x 30cm. Courtesy of the artist and Flowers Gallery.

In Thoughts that Gather Up (2016) the painting maximizes visually from a process of working and re-working. The continual sanding back of the surface is not seen, but the rigorous setting up of the physical conditions for the oil (and sometimes wax), and the silver pigment, cement the painting’s history. The bottom part of this picture somehow props up, or supports, the warmer spaces in the top part. There is a balanced optical interplay between the geometric certainties and the perspectival reading. Often painting with a specific number of colours, the pink or red grounds activate the weight and shade of colour. The aesthetic and subjective choices, found in a system where composition, time, and memory work in combination, is rooted in the complex structures that are perhaps associated with a feeling of architectural production, in the way in which they make the space they inhabit feel recognised.

False Start Too, 2015-2016, oil on panel, 50cm x 40cm. Courtesy of the artist and Flowers Gallery.

The 50cm x 40cm paintings have a greater machine aesthetic, using a bright tonality of sometimes confectionary-like colour. The surface construction here is much more whimsical. False Start Too contains an eight-colour combination, its composition full of painterly decisions; it contains two smoky sections which sit at right angles, one rectangle and one square. The warm greys behave differently across the surface than do the other colour choices. Here, Thompson is able to introduce a tension between the successive layers of oil, which are constantly observed in a close-up encounter. But as the viewer steps back there is a more concrete impression - a clear feeling and an anticipation of movement regenerated.  

Shifting Focus Again – for JJ, 2014-15, oil on panel, 60cm x 50cm. Courtesy of the artist and Flowers Gallery.

Hans Hoffman’s 1950s paintings established a dynamic pictorial relationship and introduced a temporal quality into Hoffman’s hard geometry and unfamiliar organisational logic. In Shifting Focus Again - for JJ,  Thompson reduces the number of colours to five. But this increases the sense of temporal order. The orchestration of the proportions, with sections often divided and subdivided, feels succinct, and the warm brown and pink sit deeply in the top part of the picture space, almost vibrating in the picture plane. The use of the warm yellow fills the bottom part; operating within an emotional context, it optically kicks out of the space towards the viewer’s space, declaring Thompson’s use of an open system, in which the visual strategies extend from a cosmic experience to a domestic encounter.

Still, The Same as Ever, 2016, oil on panel,  50cm x 40cm. Courtesy of the artist and Flowers Gallery.

This idea fits with one of the aims of Thompsons work, which  feels deeply embedded in her practice: that each part of the work should have its own internal and external significance. This is particularly significant in the painting Still, The Same as Ever (2016), which feels fragile and elegant, and forces the spectator to consider the serious and the frivolous experience simultaneously.

The works themselves are a synthesis of all that is optically seductive, with a vision of both a social and a private world. They are not particularly theatrical; they do not contain obvious gesture, but they reach into complex regions of phenomenology in their sense of pleasure equivalents, and although, as Thompson says: “I am never consciously abstracting from anything”, her works are an enquiry into refinement, precision and distance, beyond surface, that signals universal forces and relationships.

Artist of the Day - Estelle Thompson at Flowers Gallery