Estelle Thompson

Purdy Hicks

The paintings Estelle Thompson showed in her major exhibition in Walsall, England, three years ago were large in scale. Called “Fuse” paintings, their dimensions calculated in relation to the architecture of the gallery’s spaces, all were composed of narrow vertical stripes whose edges shaded into each other. While their physical proportions encouraged the viewer to feel securely anchored within the surroundings, the blurred quality of their surfaces made it impossible to get a visual fix on them. That the resultant disequilibrium between visual and somatic input has been a familiar experience in the face of recent painting was very much part of Thompson’s argument in her flirtation with, and resistance to, the decorative impulse. On the one hand acknowledging all that has been said about painting’s endgame status and the utter irrelevance of any abstraction/figuration distinction and, on the other, reveling in the visual pleasures and symbolic possibilities of a medium that is not yet beyond its useful life, she is a consummate tester of orthodoxies.

The new works are more objectlike than architectural. Small in size, they are painted on MDF boards mounted on substantial wooden or MDF frames. Some echoes of the “Fuse” stripes remain in the imagery, but there are also allusions to other sorts of simple patterning such as that found in flags. Otherwise flat areas of color may be subtly modulated to prevent them from reading uncomplicatedly as surface. Repeated features include narrow bands bordering shapes and a horizontal rectangle reaching from edge to edge that harks back to Thompson’s 1996 “Block” paintings. The bands, where they appear, rarely run their full length as one color, and often fail to reach from edge to edge. Their incompleteness, together with the prevalence of forms suggestive of slits, slots, and other kinds of openings, seem to be there as so many ways into paintings that, in most other respects, keep the eye focused on the surface. All this might sound a bit dry, but the reality is a group of physically controlled paintings within which a restless interest in color is constantly at work. In some instances, such as Inside Out, 2003, the paint creates a quick, even surface. Untitled, 2003, by contrast, has been built up more slowly, earlier versions of its hexagonal pattern still visible in the ground lending it the air of an isometric space about to fall apart.

The rectangle appears three times in Whiteishwhiteishness, 2003, almost completely covered by a final layer of translucent pale gray wash. Down the right hand side, where the wash fails to reach, their edges are blue, yellow, and red. All the big boys are there—Ryman, Reinhardt, Newman, Mondrian, and even Stella (in the title’s internal reiteration modeled, perhaps, on his “What you see is what you see”)—but it’s no homage, more a turning to Thompson’s own ends of what has been made available to her over the years. There’s wide-eyed appreciation and sardonic questioning of our faith in these models at one and the same time. Theory gets the same ambivalent verdict. A healthily improper mix of red, black, brown, and turquoise blue carries the title When Percept Swallows Concept, 2003. Deleuze and Guattari all present and correct, if you want or feel you need them. On the whole, though, they’re probably not essential.

Michael Archer