A Review of by Gráinne Rice
“And wherever you do, whatever you do, there’s always that damp little island called the past…”
Many of the works in the Apotropaic exhibition were developed whilst Sharon Thomas was a Sainsbury Scholar at the British School in Rome (2005-06). As implied by Morrissey’s words (another ex-pat anglo in roman exile), the work in this exhibition is haunted by (rather than dreaming of) a brooding vision of England’s pleasant pastures. Cheshire-born Thomas trained in the Painting Department at Glasgow School of Art in the late 1990s under Sandy Moffat and has a clear regard for the history of her discipline. As eloquently described in Francesco Nevola’s accompanying catalogue essay, Thomas is refreshingly open about the artists who have over time influenced the development of her work listing: the Italian Old Masters; Rubens; Thomas Cole; Richter; fellow GSA alumna Jenny Saville; former tutor Moyna Flanagan; Lisa Yuskavage and John Currin amongst others. Somewhat unusual in it’s breadth and honesty, the essay traces the development of her work and ideas from student days at GSA, to her Masters at the New York Academy of Art and mostly recently in Rome. The common thread that developed during these periods of didactic exile was that of the artist being away from the landscape of her childhood. Travel broadens the mind, and not unlike the effect that participating in the aristocratic tradition of travel of ‘the Grand Tour’ had on the work of British painters such as Richard Wilson and J M W Turner, Thomas’s period away has reinvigorated her approach to Englishness both in content and style.
During her time studying and living in New York she made initial compositions such as New Jerusalem (2004) where the girl-next-door protagonist of her early student paintings is fore-grounded within the magnificent suffused palette of a Dutch-influenced English landscape. In the monumentally-scaled Regina Res Publica (also 2004), the heroine stops to view the landscape astride a bicycle, centrally placed within an elevated, bird’s eye perspective of the vista. Regina stands like the proprietor in a 17th century Siberechts or Knyff painting, a proud huntswoman, the mistress of all she surveys. Regina’s view is not topographic as the Flemish precursors of English country house portraiture would have been. The landscape is an imagined one, formed by Thomas’s experience of rural Cheshire as well as the rich tradition of landscape in the history of painting. Making its first appearance is the abstracted motif of Beeston Castle rising above the idealised, fecund flatlands of the Cheshire plains. The exaggerated aerial or high viewpoint perspective reaches it’s apotheosis in the painting The Parishes (2005), instead of the topographic delineation of landscape of a flourishing economy of Flemish Prospect painting precedents it offers a high viewpoint for the Moulton Crow Man mumming ritual about to be enacted.
Thomas once said in conversation several years ago that she was God in her art and that she controls all that goes on within the picture frame, it’s a world of her making. Thomas’s imagination is spreading beyond the picture frame into the gallery space itself, yearning to control context as well as object. This is evidenced in the Nights at Fairy Hill installation of maquettes and vast unrolled charcoal landscape as part of her 2006 Overlap group exhibition in Rome and the recent 2008 two person Mundane Shell exhibition (with Laurie Figgis) as part of Gi: Glasgow International Festival of Contemporary Visual Art at the Glasgow Print Studio.
Clearly in love with the landscape paintings of Gainsborough, Constable, Samuel Palmer and Blake, Thomas’s work reminds us that the pastoral imagery of the genre is infinitely political. Instead of understanding these vistas as beautiful, passive arcadias, backdrops to religious or mythological narratives, the multiple layers in Thomas’s symbolism encourages a deeper, semiotic reading. The monumental scale of most of these paintings works declares them as competing with the classical and historical precedents.
The castle hill re-appears in later works up to and including the extensive Apotropaic Renaissance-styled cartoon from which the show takes its title. The anthropological etymology of the title of this work, and indeed the whole show, is the most obvious Roman influence that has seeped into the work. The word refers to cultish, popular objects that ward off evil spirits, such as the abstract symbols that were carved onto Suffolk chimney breasts to prevent demons from entering a house or the familiar sinister evil eyes charms that are sold as tourist tut in Greek and Turkish holiday resorts. Thomas employs the characters of Crow Men, inspired by the folk plays of her Cheshire landscape, frequently in the large-scale ‘history’ paintings, as well as in the smaller-scaled Coffee Morning Series (2007-08). The beaks and cones held by Thomas’s priapic male characters, the rude mechanicals of her world, become the apotropes, as they cavort through the English landscape. These props are meant to be so comic as to diffuse the threat of male phallic power. The visual parallels to Commedia Dell’arte’s beaked Il Dottorre character remind the viewer again of the influence of Thomas’s Italian experience. There are also resonances with Hieronymus Bosch’s hellish beaked devils and Paula Rego’s curious Loving Bewick sketch in her Jane Ayre series in which Jane mouth open, is depicted lovingly swallowing a pelican’s beak, literally consuming Bewick’s 1797 book History of British Birds.
Thomas has been rehearsing the dominant themes of this work landscape, masculinity, folklore home-grown mythologies for many years. The castle hill, like the brooding phallus of Glastonbury Tor as it throbbed it’s way through the BBC’s 1986 adaptation of Fay Weldon’s The Life and Loves of a She-Devil, serves as a Lacanian signifier of the phallus or male power. The Morris Dancer in Ridicule (Is Nothing to be Scared of) (2005) prancing across a recently ploughed Constable-esque field holds aloft a hoop cheerfully decorated with ribbons instead of the more familiar ‘sword’ stick. He has been de-nuded of his phallic instrument, the reference to Adam Ant’s early 80’s dandyism a reflection of the showy theatricality of this masculine folk tradition. Fruits of the Forest (2006) images a heavily pregnant man surrounded by a nauseating harvest of ripened fruit and flowers, purple plums in his lap. A reflection of Thomas’s own initiation into motherhood at this time, it revisits the sinister fertility cult of the scenes of colourful pagan rituals of the hugely influential 1970s cult horror film The Wicker Man.
The ‘average joes’ depicted in the series of imaginary portraits, Ripe for the Picking (band of brothers) (2008) and the dirty, beak-swallowing priest of A Birds Eye View#1 and #2 (both 2009) are parodies of contemporary masculinity over which Thomas is asserting her ‘female gaze’. She makes a conscious decision to switch role from watched to watcher. The female characters of the powerful imaginary equestrian portrait, Kate’s Progress (date) and in the Coffee Morning Series of small monochromes (2007-08), become the powerful players, skirting close to the sexually threatening Crow Men lurking in the bushes but ultimately triumphing over the frustrated males. “The Penis only comes to be elided with the phallus because female sexuality is considered a lack in patriarchal order, and the differences between male and female genitals become expressed in terms of the presence or absence of the male term [phallus]” It is the female characters in Thomas’s paintings who hold the attributes of Lacanian phallic power, at once enacting a repudiation of, and reinforcing, sub-Freudian theories of female penis-envy. Thomas’s characters are surrounded by phallic symbols but are not psychologically castrated men, they are the oblivious and heroic protagonists around which the corpulent average joes circulate.
© Grainne Rice 2009