Gerard de Thame

Riverside Studios

On nights when it is too hot to sleep, you might get up and pour yourself a drink or try to write letters or just watch the curtains blowing against the window frames. Outside, other dwellings are full of people sleeping or pacing too. It becomes harder to concentrate as tiredness sets in. The furniture starts to look odd. Shadows mystify corners you thought you knew. Feeling not entirely safe nor fully in control gives that feeling a special savor.

In “Through the Night,” 1984, a series of large black and white paintings by Gerard de Thame, semidarkened interiors come to resemble film noir sets strewn with props as problematic as whodunit clues. If, after all, emptiness itself comes to seem suspicious, this may be a function of the technique. Applying only black paint over the gleam of the paper below, de Thame makes certain objects seem to glow from within, like that famous glass of milk in Alfred Hitchcock. But the impression that nothing is quite as it should be is not so easy to explain. Illogical perspectives, improbable shadows; concreteness dissolved, light made tangible; academic realism shot through with emotion, expressionist strokes drained of vivacity . . . There are moments when recognizable “realisms” are employed or even deliberately quoted. Edward Hopper’s presence is unmistakable, Hopper whose technical deficiencies—those stagey nudes and irritating surfaces, most of all his refusal to allow the paint to “speak”—seem not a problem of expression but the product of a high level of cynicism toward the validity of visual codes coupled with a Romantic yearning for their persuasive effects.

A simultaneous emotional and moral deadlock characterizes de Thame’s work. His high degree of coherence incorporates nagging doubts about visual validity, aggravated by the inescapable truth that any debate about this validity must be carried out in visual terms. In 6.2322 Assertion/Uncertainty, 1982, viewers were offered alternative glimpses of an apparently identical tableau, one “true,” the other “false” but attractive, with a reminder that Ludwig Wittgenstein had been there before. Another room-sized work, The Engraver’s Dream, 1982, translated a 19th-century print into three dimensions by constructing a version of Pepper’s Ghost, the Victorian stage device that allowed an actor, invisible to the audience, to cast a disembodied image on a sheet of glass onstage. Subsequent large-scale doodles returned compulsively to the dangers of creation: fears that the artist would make art without knowing it (a man holds his hands so that he unconsciously casts the shadow of a ferocious animal on a cave wall behind him) or will colonize the outside world so totally that its otherness will be impaired (a watcher tames a wolf simply by looking at it and preparing a mental forest for it to inhabit).

The momentary fear that art is no more than bulky, useless spectacle has developed into a convention that governs de Thame’s thinking. His dream seems to be of a single glimpse that by telling the truth would provide a basis for an entirely new “vision.” Perhaps it is the patent impossibility of this search that has led to a preoccupation with absence, yet absence, of course, cannot be represented and can be defined only by artifice. In “Through the Night” the artist himself is absent, though his presence is suggested by unpredictably shaped shadows, a homunculus formed by spilled liquid, evidence of his “work,” but mainly through the sheer uncontrolled sadness of the pictures. Loneliness is a present absence. Though it may always be there, we may forget it temporarily; then the way light falls on a desk, or a line of music, brings a sudden realization which robs us of logic, of a stable sense of our size, our importance, what we can control. Of course, such moments hint that de Thame’s dream is not unmanageable—it just has to be harnessed, in improbable ways. There are dangers, as ever. One is the quiver of excitement that accompanies any emotion bordering on self-pity. In these paintings it emerges as an existential frisson. For the artist as born worrier it may mean something is going wrong. For his art it may mean just the opposite.

Stuart Morgan