David Thomas: Colouring Impermanence highlighted the value of painting and the process of empathetic observation to contemporary creative practice.
Implicit to David Thomas’ understanding of empathy is his sensitivity to touch: “Painting offers an opportunity to reflect on the complexity of our responses; emotional and conceptual; imaginative and tactile; via image and materiality in time. In the act of painting you feel; thought, touch and emotion are connected,” he explained.
Works drawn from over four decades were presented together for the first time at Design Hub Gallery. The exhibition was intended as an exploration of the core values inherent within Thomas’ practice including colour, duration and time.
The experience for visitors was one of time as a subject in itself. “The works enable the viewer to understand the movement of meaning over time and to contemplate the transitory, unstable nature of being and perceiving” Thomas stated.
The exhibition brought together two inter-connected yet distinctive spaces. Project Room 1 was a contemplative and experiential space with a series of works from Thomas’ archive as well as new works created directly in response to the Design Hub Gallery. Purpose-made, large-scale monochrome paintings operated as surfaces and offered illusionary depth; folding together real and pictorial space as well as time – the viewer saw themselves viewing.
Thomas uses colour in the form of the monochrome, placed in relation to other things to create an interval, a pause and a place of emptiness to stop and reflect. As he explained: “The monochrome is a tool for considering how we look, feel and construct our experience of the world.”
Positioned between the Project Rooms was the ‘mobile monochrome’ series Taking A Line For A Walk. The work brought together Thomas’ playful sense of humour together with a deep contemplation of mortality, transience and our passage through the what he described as the “wonder of the everyday world.”
Project Room 2 was conceived as a studio-like environment where works – from early figurative drawings through to contemporary paintings – were presented with works by peers alongside collaborative projects such as those with international collective Concrete Post.
A series of drawings in folios invited interaction and close observation. Collected within a loose chronology from the 1970s to the present day, the folios brought together drawings from Thomas’ transition period between figuration and abstraction – ‘the blur’ as he referred to it – as well as early explorations into colour, time and duration through photo paintings and composites. Interacting intimately with these works by turning each page of the folios and even handling works directly, provided a rich insight into Thomas’ processes for making and thinking through his art, for teaching his students and for working collaboratively with others.
The exhibition culminated with a large-scale and immersive installation entitled Impermanences – works made on thin paper with opaque media. The emphasis on touch and its duration created an unstable surface that was subject to the conditions of change, challenging ‘value’ in painting. We saw the moment of the brush meeting the surface and a slow awareness of the duration of contact.
During the exhibition the Design Hub Gallery hosted a ‘micro-course’ examining the importance of teaching to Thomas’ practice. Through eight lessons participants experimented with drawing, painting and photography, participated in tutorials and attended group discussions with Thomas and his peers and collaborators. Each lesson unpacked the ideas explored in Thomas’ work and his approach to helping students develop their own creative practices.
Thomas explores ideas that are deeply human. Implicit in his understanding of empathy is his sensitivity to touch and ‘the felt’. While poetics underpins the language, Thomas’ argument for ‘attentive looking’ has renewed currency in the face of our increasingly pressured, augmented and shared contemporary lives. Colouring Impermanence challenged us to pause, and reconsider the world around us with empathy.
Curation and Design: Fleur Watson, Stuart Geddes and David Thomas
Photography by Tobias Titz
RMIT Design Hub Gallery team: Kate Rhodes, Fleur Watson, Nella Themelios, Erik North, Tim McLeod, Sam Fagan, Gavin Bell, Chloë Powell, Layla Cluer
David Thomas: Colouring Impermanence installation view, images courtesy of Tobias Titz