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Martin Thompson

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Martin Thompson

Martin Thompson at Michael Hirschfeld Gallery
13 Oct 2006 - 13 Nov 2006

by mcc
Article of the Month November 2006

And out of Order there came Chaos....

For all those visiting the City Gallery in Wellington, who are not impressed with the overly manipulated photography of Sam Taylor Wood, try Thompson's show exhibited in the Hirschfeld Gallery, for manipulation. If you think that Sam Taylor Wood has a knack for making a grown man cry - you ain't seen nothing yet! ( and that I promise is the last cheesy comparison)

Martin Thompson has been exhibited in the past, and still is, under the auspices of a Visionary or Self Taught Artist, or as might more basically be categorised, an "Outsider Artist". For what is reported as 26 years, Thompson has been working on a particular methodology, to organise the world into a world where there are patterns, and they are explicit, as well as being implicit. As the Gallery tells us, Thompson was exposed to Benoit Mandelbrot's 1975 theories of fractals, and so began the long journey into what is obsessively and meticulously deliberated upon in the manipulation of pattern and exhibition of time.....because that's what really touched me about the hand-made work. How much time had been spent into the making of these works.

In truth, I find this work very difficult to write about, as I feel that I don't know enough about the science of fractals, or the philosophy of chaotic dynamical systems, or the mathematics of geometry, ( and I'm not sure how conversant Thompson is on the subject) but I'll give it a shot, because above all I found Thompson's work to be appealing to a fundamental desire to find a way to consider the infinitesimal and the infinitely enormous.

I first heard about Martin Thompson from co-curator of the show Stuart Shepherd who was talking to a group of artists about including the work of 'Outsider Art' or 'Self-Taught' or 'Visionary', into the discipline and consciousness of art colleges - a very exciting proposition and not without some difficulties. It seems to me that introducing this work and presumably the artists into the establishment, is very much reliant on the agencies of the art world, the critics, the curators, the collectors and the buyers and the educators. Of course, it might have always been like this and might always be, and before I dig an even bigger hole for myself, I will declare that perhaps what confuses me most of all is the categories wherein an artist exists. What makes an artist, just simply an artist?

This question seems to me to be implicitly involved in this exhibition, where there is the move from the modestly sized hand crafted squares of work and the disciplines involved therein, to the explicit collaboration with computer generated manifestations, where not only the appearance is changed to a level of slickness not found in the handiwork, but also to reinforce the old adage - size matters. In a recent interview with the artist, a difficult one as he appeared to the interviewer as a man of few words, he declared that he thought his work would look good as wallpaper. So with the aid of a computer, more colour is accessible and his work can be repeated ad infinitum to fill a space. There is one wall papered and I thank the gallery and the curators that they kept it to just one wall as it's all just abit too bewildering to the eye- although if the whole space had been wall- papered it might have said more about what the artist wanted.

Before I make myself sound too much of a conservative Luddite, I would have to admit that this work offers alot of questions about the manipulation of media, the manipulation of the artworld and above all - intention.

Michael Hirschfeld Gallery

City Gallery Media Release on Martin Thompson

Editor's Notes:

Martin Thompson made NZ headlines last year as the first New Zealand artist to be exhibited in a "major New York Gallery" (The American Folk Art Museum). That exhibition has a page on the AFAM website and was reviewed in the New York Times (you have to join to read it, but it's free), the Village Voice and New York Magazine. (Later two articles hosted on the AFAM website.)

Images courtesy of City Gallery Wellington and Alexander Bisley.

- AB.

thomson-CR-051 thomson-CR-057 DSCN8970 DSCN8970-detail

1 to 20 of 54
Spider You
1 articles & 107 comments since 21 Mar 2006
The most interesting exhibition at

the City Gallery at the moment is the small show of Martin Thompson's work in the Hirschfeld space curated by Stuart Sherherd and Jessica Reid. Shepherd has been a supporter of Thompson and "promoter" of his work for a little while now and this show has added a couple of extra twists.

A few of the small works are displayed sandwiched between glass and suspended so you can see the backside. Very interesting how (and Ive never realised this before) that the works are very collaged where Thompson has cut out sections (very precisely) and rearranged the cells to maintain the pattern. The re-arranged segments are cellotaped into place and more or less invisible on the front-side (described in the blurb as "fixing mistakes"). In a way this takes away a little of the mystery (and admiration of patience) as to how the pattern is achieved, but as surfaces the "backsides" are as interesting as the front.

In addition to the standard hand made small works, Thompson has been "exposed" to computers and has produced a number of large digi-prints, detail of the same scale but multiplied to make the images bigger (if yah know what I mean?). Some actual patterned wall-paper is stuck to the wall - a dabble with potential commercial enterprise?

This is where I feel Thompson's practice is getting interesting. With the exposure he is getting and obviously a level of mentoring and gallery support, what is motivating the development/change in his work.

Is it authentic or not?

Gosh, this is starting to sound like a review...I had better stop now.


(NB. This comment moved from the Sam Taylor Wood thread. It was written before the above review was posted - AB)
John Hurrell
122 articles & 1507 comments since 2 Dec 2005

Yeah I wonder about the intention and origins of this project. Why did he start doing these? Is Thompson actually knowledgeable about mathematical principles, or has he now become a performing seal for curators like Shepherd and Brennan, doing them by rote?

Well if it is 'death of the author and birth of the reader' I guess it doesn't matter either way. How important is it for an artist to articulate verbally about the raison d'etre behind their processes? Maybe that Thompson creates these intriguing objects is enough..

Formally their qualities raise issues of category. Could you exhibit them alongside Glenys Brookbanks or Monique Jansen, for example?

Or is the work really not about pattern but obsession -like say On Kawara, Hanne Darboven, or Roman Opalka. Spider you's observations about the collage prove the work is not about Time, which is what one might firstly suppose.

I don't think one should admire the work simply because it is labour intensive or skilled craft. That nuts! It has to draw you in for other reasons, and I think this stuff does - from what I've seen of examples elsewhere.

3 articles & 366 comments since 9 Oct 2006
authenticity rears its head again

this thread is a doozy in terms of potential ethical tangles.
crikey where to start?

I'll give a parallel, more extreme, example to introduce what I perceive as being some of the problems in the relationship between the 'guided visionary' or discovered outsider and the vested interests of art institutions

a visiting lecturer in 2001, Roger Hall, talked about his involvement with outsider art. his starting point and vested interest was quite specific and explicit. He was postgraduate coordinator for the Glasgow School of Art at the time (no-longer as far as I know) and was interested in (re)creating a cloud of associated glory around 'His' graduates. his strategy for doing that was to fill the programme with people who were termed as outsider because they previously had no formal art education and to then 'guide' them to the work and ideas that would make them commodifiable in the art world. commodifiable is my word not his.

while he was talking about how this (pygmalian) master project was going he gave some examples from his own practice that were very revealing. during a tour of South Africa in the late '90's he came across a man selling handcraft items on the road side. The items were hand painted recreations of english language road signs, where the text had been used as painterly texture not as words and the meaning distorted and dispersed as the original letters were reorganised into different groupings. Hall bought all of the items at the asking price with great excitement, and promptly organised an exhibition in a regional gallery of the entire group of work, repositioned as 'outsider art'.

strangely the artisan/artist who created the work didnt understand or appreciate this elevation of his work, and set up an oppositional stall on the curb outside the regional gallery, selling the same items...understanding that he had been sidelined in the exhibition process and seeing Halls act as an attempt to muscle in on his franchise commercially rather than intellectually.
Hall was irritated by what he perceived as ignorant ingratitude from the artist/craftsperson and dismissed the significance of the incident.

Please note Im not suggesting that Martin Thomson is being exploited, or saying that he is particularly similar to the unnamed african salesperson...

the example is intended only for raising the issue of what happens when the positioning of the work by an institution/ curator that 'knows better' automatically divorces the work from any idea that the artist knew what he was doing. If the Outsider is also a 'visionary' and the work is offering fresh perspectives and insights then positioning it an existing academic/intellectual continuum is always going to problematic...even without the power issues that are implicit.
John Hurrell
122 articles & 1507 comments since 2 Dec 2005
Doesn't Denis Dutton do the same thing

as Roger Hall, but with tribal art? Or have I got it wrong? Go and ask him, Artbasher?
6 articles & 26 comments since 12 Sep 2006

Interesting choice of words there JH> but seriously, I'm always going to admire the amount of time and labour put into anything - of course this is not the only thing to appreciate - and that's why I'm ambivalent about work that is so reliant on how the work is made, being reduced (or extended by) media and technology that make all of that hidden. It's this ambivalence that draws me in - I would never say I've ever been a fan of Op Art, and it doesn't have the same flavour as a Rorschach drawing/print - I've never been a great fan of grids as they do denote an orderliness which smacks of cynicism and sinister intent, to me.
So, I'm curious about what about Thompson's work draws you in?
19 articles & 495 comments since 9 Aug 2005
When I wrote a letter

questioning these exact problems about Thompson in the Dominion Post, you'd have thought I'd attacked Mother Theresa. I got a very terse email from his svengali Shepherd and a tizzy of hostility on the luvvy bloggs.
I'm still not convinced that something with all the expression of a knitting pattern is really art and not Sodduku.
John Hurrell
122 articles & 1507 comments since 2 Dec 2005
mcc, the design draws me in, the placement of different elements. ...the micro/macro contrasts

Not the hours of labour. Sweat doesn't correlate with quality.

I'm fond of grids, you see. Love 'em. But not overly impressed with exertion.

6 articles & 26 comments since 12 Sep 2006
Yeah - it's touchy ground

But that's what makes it so fascinating. I do think it's a bit harsh to refer to Shepherd as his 'svengali' because above all, I'm quite convinced that Thompson will keep making his work his way, and
Shepherd will keep asking questions about what is the place for Visionary and Self Taught Art. I draw your attention to the very informative and 'academic' web site www.selftaughtart.org.nz
6 articles & 26 comments since 12 Sep 2006
Well JH -

I appreciate your honesty - I don't necessarily see it as sweaty labour, but concentration and committment labour - whether one gets into a zen-like state of exertion or just bloody mindedness.
John Hurrell
122 articles & 1507 comments since 2 Dec 2005
I happen to make labour intensive stuff myself. Have done so all my life.

I'd like to think that people who enjoy those endeavours like the ideas involved, or the design or the humor - but the hours of concentration, I'd prefer they ignored that. Otherwise you might just as well whittle wood and exhibit shavings.
Chris Taylor
1 articles & 308 comments since 30 Apr 2006
This could be the smallest

one I've seen.
137 articles & 705 comments since 12 Feb 2005
Watch the Nightline article on Thompson

Courtesy of tv3

"He thinks they might make nice wallpaper" - lol!

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Spider You
1 articles & 107 comments since 21 Mar 2006
This one

is smaller.
137 articles & 705 comments since 12 Feb 2005
Awesome story alibi.

Check out the cuts in the grid paper on the detail image above.

Oh, and I'd never speak for prof. Dutton, (the following is wild speculation), but I think he mostly collects older Sepik art which I think he enjoys for what he calls it's universal beauty (that all humans can appreciate due to our shared evolved tastes) - he's not at all into context or re-apropriation or anything like that.
Chris Taylor
1 articles & 308 comments since 30 Apr 2006
This one is bigger

than yours Spider You.
3 articles & 69 comments since 13 Oct 2006
So curious

Isn't it strange how these patterns have created so much fuss. Maori women and many other traditional weavers create equally complex woven mirror patterns and no one bats an eye.
Chris Taylor
1 articles & 308 comments since 30 Apr 2006
Having seen the Nightline

segment, I suspect the interest lies very much in the persona of the artist. He fulfills a number of 'types' associated with the creation of 'real' art, a sort of van Gogh syndrome, except he reminds me of our very own late shaman, James K Baxter, with a techno twist. Or perhaps we have Sandoz labs to thank for that. However there is something interesting about it all, very Wellington for some reason I can't quite put my finger on.
12 articles & 232 comments since 13 Aug 2006
But they're

working in such different worlds, to different ends, that's the operative thing behind the different effect of these different creators, I think.

Weavers' organising principles would often be practical, in part, and the involvement with the 'patterns' would be an adjunct to that, whereas Thompson's 'patterns' are apparently done as a purpose in themselves and function is only there as something added-on (wallpaper!). He is driven to do this particular thing it seems so he has purpose, autonomy, and organising structure. Not sure if he has any 'transcendental good' relevant to his domain (four qualities identified by Charles Murray in 'Human accomplishment').

Its not because the weavers are often women that their work is (currently) given less attention, is it, its because of the differences about how the creators cast, or don't cast, the type of work they do, and this reflects the works' culture, and the individuals' ambitions, self-insight and evaluation or otherwise, and purpose, I suppose.
John Hurrell
122 articles & 1507 comments since 2 Dec 2005
How sophisticated are the conceptual

underpinnings here? I assume there is more involved than Thompson spotting a book on Mandelbrot and just mimmicking fractuals. He is conversant with the theory in depth? Or is that question unfair?

If he were a young person coming out of art school who did the same work, would he attract attention? Would say, Jon Bywater for example, consider this practice worthy of an Arts Foundation New Generation Award, if it is not conceptually sophisticated but 'Outsider' and merely obsessive in nature?

If Thompson said 'Look, I'm essentially just a formalist who really likes making patterns, and  oh....I sell insurance in my daytime job," where would that place him?

3 articles & 366 comments since 9 Oct 2006
isnt the persona of

the artist mostly the point in this situation?
As CT says. ..a return to a very familiar type casting of the eccentric artist figure. I dont know that working with a graphic designer qualifies as 'a techno twist' however... image scanning and cloning is hardly cyberpunk, still essentially analogue.

JH I would think that the answer to your rhetorical questions would be of course not, a recent graduate that tooted on about making money from greeting cards and wallpaper would not be showing that work at City Gallery. the question about how sophisticated his actual understanding of chaos theory and fractal mathematics may be: surely also rhetorical
but in the mythmaking around 'outsider visionary' somehow a superficial aesthetic resemblance to madlebrot equations is recast as a spontaneous and intuitive (authentic!) connection to a universal truth. where have we heard these ideas before?
it smells like a degraded version of artist-as-genuis, old ideas newly shabby with millenial grunge.

your theoretical insurance guy with the formalist compulsion doesnt have a sh*t show in this universe, unless the compulsion becomes diagnosable...then maybe we can talk again.

and yet...I quite like the work.
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