Extending the Limits of the Visible
GORDON H. BROWN
In her May-June 1983 exhibition it the Denis Cohn Gallery Pauline Thompson included a group of five paintings, the subjects of which were derived from the hub of Downtown Auckland: the City Square and Fountain, the General Post Office and the Ferry Building. As cityscapes they have a ring of actuality. Yet they escape the restrictions of being factual in what they depict of each location and they retain that ordinariness associated with the traditional heart of landscape painting when functioning at its best. By this, nothing commonplace is implied, but an acceptance of the customary world we all inhabit and are most familiar with, and from which acquaintance artists pick and choose their images as through the exercise of their sensibilities they render the world permanent via the medium of their art. The almost metaphysical overtones that possess so many of Pauline Thompson's other works are absent in these Downtown Auckland paintings; or at least are only marginally present. It is the very absence of such visionary or supernatural aspects that allows the viewer to concentrate on what it is that these paintings possess as paintings. It is their very ordinariness that points directly to their admirable qualities simply as paintings.
What are these qualities, these special virtues? They arise from Pauline Thompson's sensitivity as a painter to the medium she uses. In this sense her virtues lie in the way she controls her paint-brushes so that they bring out special qualities in the paint. Although she paints with only a moderately loaded brush, when the pigment is applied it is able to convey an impression akin to succulence. Here is a painter who delights in the sensuousness of her medium—without being subverted by it. She is almost always in control in a painting situation that requires give and take. What is more, this paint quality is directed primarily to the function of realizing, and contributing to, the physical properties associated with the images that combine to produce a painting. Or is it the nature of these various objects as they are conceived as images somewhere between what the retina of the eye registers and their transcription and assimilation into the medium of paint! Take just one image—the water that gushes and falls from the fountain—as confirmation of this realization in terms of paint quality. However, there is another factor in the handling of her medium that affects the realization of her painted images.
Clock Tower 1983
oil on canvas, 600 x 750 mm.
Pauline Thompson's paintings also convey a definite atmosphere. At the moment it is best to concentrate on the obvious, the atmosphere associated with the translucent qualities of light and how this alters the substance of the images. It is a factor that affects the general colouration of a painting. In the Downtown Auckland series of paintings the atmosphere that prevails is one suffused with a late-afternoon sunlight glow. This gives to the colours used a fragile effervescence. Even at their most colourful, as in City Square I with its pinky-blue ground and deep-purple-blue shadow, or the pinky-red of the Post Office Building with its solid-green facings, the colour combinations used are neither forcibly contrasted nor lush, but subdued without being mellow. Again it is as much the brushwork as the colours used that conveys the sense of an enveloping atmosphere in a scene.
In all the factors so far considered, what the Downtown Auckland paintings do, and do so well, is to bring out those qualities which show Pauline Thompson to be the skilled, sensitive painter she is.
In her many other works, these painterly qualities are often overshadowed by a particular mode of feeling conveyed by a painting—its heightened atmosphere of mystery, the implications of its subject or the latent lyricism that can pervade a work. Yet that element of sensuousness in the handling of her medium has always been a real factor in her paintings.
City Fountain 1983
oil on canvas. 500 x 600 mm.
It was so in her early, and often large, canvases of 1965. In these paintings Pauline Thompson sought to convey environmental experience in action. But while the shapes in these works sometimes seemed to indicate that they were filled to the brim and about to overflow—especially the rounded, bulbous shapes—her forms often gave the impression that they were not always under full control. At this stage she still indulged in a mannerism derived from Abstract Expressionism. It was the habit of permitting paint to dribble down a canvas or of letting splashes of paint remain when they lacked pictorial significance. In 1966 there followed a group of better-controlled paintings whose imagery revealed a partial debt to the idiom of Pop Art. In the best known of these (one is reproduced in Brown and Keith, An Introduction to New Zealand Painting) broad areas of colour are separated by a pattern of sensuously swirling, undulating lines, while certain areas are invaded by a regulated splattering of large polka-dots. However, Painting A '66 No I offered the clearest demonstration of one aspect of this interest in the sensuous element in the medium used, for it included imitation leopard-skin cloth and a picture-frame partly composed of another fabric.
For all the immediacy in the appeal of these paintings, during 1967 Pauline Thompson turned her back on the ready-made advantages derived from the Pop Art idiom. Instead she concentrated on a series of unpretentious pieces. If fruit provided the main subject for these works, the real reason for their existence pointed to a desire to reassess the direction her work had taken and what she saw as a need to develop new techniques. Between 1968 and 1970 she produced a series of works that were symbolic in intention, and in which the stylized form of a Palm Tree dominated. This motif required a lot of reworking before its basic shape and structure was resolved and a satisfactory form achieved.
Shale Plain with Pool 1979
watercolour on paper, 525 x 795 mm.
A group of acrylic paintings from about 1969 based on the Palm Tree motif went under the title of the Cycle series. Painted on unprimed canvas, they show certain characteristics common to the way the motif was generally portrayed, but the Cycle series also shows the motif to its advantage. Although, in form, the Palm Tree had lost any direct association with the visual appearance of the real thing, to some extent the motif followed a fairly well-established pictorial convention without succumbing to the dulling effects of a hackneyed image. Besides the conventional stylization and the highly symmetrical composition assumed by these paintings, the most obvious factor is the half-tone status of the image as it has been painted on the canvas. While the paleness of the image suggested the spiritual implications of the Palm Tree as a symbolic object, the lightness of the painter's touch was both delicate and welcomed a certain visual attraction. This delicacy in handling the brush and the thin washes of paint pointed to a future development in Thompson's work, however tenuous this link might seem at first glance.
With the needs of a young family to attend to during the nineteen-seventies, Pauline Thompson's creation of artistic work was considerably curtailed over the next several years. In 1980, after seven years without showing any work in public, the artist once again launched an exhibition of her work at the Peter Webb Galleries. Never having been too concerned with trends or fashions in painting since 1967, she was aware that her works based on the Palm Tree motif had attracted only minimal interest. Her new series, Plains and Volcanoes, was likewise concerned with the less perceptible aspects of the physical world. But, during the intervening years, attitudes had changed and the enigmatic aspect of her new paintings now attracted more serious attention.
In the Plains and Volcanoes some of the earlier lightness of touch was retained but the images claimed more substance. In one work, Crater, Auckland, such solidity, if softened somewhat by the pervading atmosphere, was quite pronounced. But for the rest of these watercolours, while the landscape images relate to the appearance of the world, they are not dominated by its actuality. From this exhibition the prominent works were those showing a vast, sombre plain across which was placed an assortment of strange looking features and natural objects. Not only is each version of this vast plain bathed in an unearthly light, but the clumps and lines of trees, the pools, the trails of smoke and the strange structures and earthworks (which suggest a human origin) combine to create a setting where the atmosphere becomes laden with symbolic potential. In comparison to what was to follow, these works now appear a little tentative both in technique and in what they aimed to convey. The feeling was there, but its projection was not fully realized.
Auckland View: Central Police Station
Guy Fawkes Night II 1982
oil on canvas, 505 x 610 mm.
(Collection of the Auckland City Art Gallery)
In the works which followed in 1982 this potential was largely realized. These paintings fall into three series: (1) Rangitoto View, (2) Rangitoto View, Guy Fawkes Night and (3) Auckland View: Central Police Station, Guy Fawkes Night. The generalized atmosphere of expectancy is carried over from the Plains, as are some of the images such as the long plume of smoke. But the sense of a human presence has become firmly established, if still by implication. In the Rangitoto Views the human presence is a domestic one, for the landscape is viewed from a living-room. But this human presence becomes more ominous in the paintings where the tower of the Auckland Central Police Station has become the prominent feature. The landscapes in all these paintings, while still conditioned by the dictates of the imagination, possess the solidity of terra firma.
In all three series and in Pauline Thompson's recent paintings, the quality of the pervading atmosphere found in each work plays a double role. In the first place, there is the physical aspect as revealed through the properties of light. In nearly all the paintings the light conditions established can be associated with a transitional period of the day: either it is late afternoon sunlight or the luminous afterglow of early evening. This factor alone contributes to the sense of expectancy that invades all these paintings, even when this factor is minimal, as in the heavy, spreading shadows that envelop the Square in the Downtown Auckland series. The second factor in the role assigned to the atmosphere in these paintings arises from what has just been indicated. It involves the quality of artistic feeling injected into these works, and the way this establishes an environmental tone for each individual painting. While this can take on a disturbing sense of impending menace, as occurs in the Auckland View: Central Police Station, Guy Fawkes Night series, in other works this quality is more enigmatic than directly evocative of some specific emotion. If there is any overriding quality of feeling then this is one of impending mystery and the implication that some event is about to happen.
When this impending sense of some-thing about to occur is linked with implications that can be extracted from other images in Pauline Thompson's paintings—the drifting smoke, the flowing water of the fountain, the flight of the rocket—then the aspect of 'events taking place', and of movement, becomes an established motif in her paintings. This can be further extended when such images as the road (in the paintings with the Central Police Station) and the painting of the Harbour Bridge can also be taken to imply a carriage-way on which people travel, or take a journey. Then again, in almost all her recent paintings, one aspect of the picture is given over to open spaces—the plain, the sky, bodies of water, even the restricted space of the City Square; or is implied in the way a view opens up when seen through the opening of a window or doorway. These elements—the sense of impending events, of things in move-ment, the transient light conditions, the implications of travel or the opening-up of space—all seem to be emblematic of a spiritual journey in which the human spirit wanders in search of some unknown estate, rather than aspiring to a specific goal.
There is also another twin feature that becomes increasingly apparent in Pauline Thompson's work. The initial factor in this aspect is the mood of lyricism that quietly invades her work. Often it is a latent expressive quality that has only begun to reveal its identity in the light of her recent paintings. It results from the emotive core of her response to images as they are recalled and transformed into art. It is a somewhat heavy brand of lyricism that evolves out of the simple, substantial forms she now prefers—though, in the past, this element was more ethereal. This lyricism can be seen in the way her feelings for shape and form grasp on to sweeping rhythms and the use of repetitive patterns, or the manner in which images assume an expressive function. These qualities can be clearly seen in the design of the paving stones and the line of circular trees in Auckland University; in the serrated line of background trees set off against the ripeness of the fruit trees in Orchard–Beachaven; in the curving sweep of the bridge with its rows of lights in Harbour Bridge; or the twin water-pillars of City Fountain. Such expressive factors enable the artist to give a simple yet heightened account of the forces that inhabit our ordinary world.
But there is a more pervasive side to this lyricism that brings into its domain all that has so far been discussed. There is in Pauline Thompson's lyrical response to all she portrays—whether in a physical or spiritual sense—the sensibility of the pastoral painter. It is not so much that she celebrates the face of nature or the countryside, but rather that she portrays a state of mind which is also the state of the human spirit.
In one sense Pauline Thompson does view the urban environment with an innocence associated with the countryside. In another sense the distinction between city and country is irrelevant, for her urban environments are places with open spaces. What is more important is that the spaces she allows in her paintings are places where the human spirit need not feel confined. Even when the instruments of urban menace may seem to threaten the spirit's mobility, there are roads that lead to the wider spaces that lie beyond. Such instruments are simply part of the human dream. Like plumes of smoke the spirit can wander freely across open spaces or ascend like a rocket into the further reaches of the sky. But this human spirit is not a dismembered spirit: it is one that physically resides and delights in the attributes of the senses.
Pauline Thompson wants the viewer to experience the world as a place alive to our senses. Yet she wants a world that does not simply duplicate its sensual capabilities, but is able to recognise the mystery and quiet drama that gives to the human spirit the space and freedom that the imagination allows. She is a modern pastoralist in which the land she wants inhabited is one that belongs to those who can enhance and extend the limits of the visible. It is a preoccupation that was present in her earlier works when for several years she sought to perfect the image of the Palm Tree: the pastoral emblem of peace, rest and comfort, yet one that reaches up into the sky. But above all, this pastoral vision is one that is conveyed as only the medium of art can convey a state of being that is both tangible and intangible.