2016: Essay, Amy Stewart

In the foreword to the 1994 edition of Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, John R Stilgoe praises the philosopher’s discovery of the idea of the house as a “metaphor of humanness”.[1] The house “is first a geometrical object of planes and right angles,” Bachelard admits, but “‘a house that has been experienced is not an inert box’”.[2]

While Susan Thomas’ paintings don’t all take houses (or even recognisable forms, for that matter) as their subject, they do all deal in humanness. Every canvas, be it a postcard-sized painting, a tiny metal disc or a metres-long diptych, begins as an exploration of geometrical planes and ends up a vivid receptacle of sensibility and sentience. Recent works incorporate such structures, little boxes, which can be read as shelters or houses. That we see houses as protection is part of her fascincation with human frailty. “We trust our little boxes to keep us safe. But how can we think that closing a door is enough?”

It is tempting to try to try to decipher a clutch of houses from the composed chaos in these paintings and read them as landscapes, but Thomas very swiftly smites any inkling of the concrete. She keeps representation at arms length, merely hinting at forms “by dint of the geometric lines and angles”, but will “disrupt” anything that looks too much like something by puncturing it with “a shard or another roof or a swirl”. Thomas’ process is not gestural but it is  deliberate, and the finished products are rhapsodies in paint.

Building on the idea of experience, Mark Rothko’s voice can be added: “A painting is not a picture of an experience; it is an experience.” These are not paintings of shelters – they are shelters. Thomas is not just visually interpreting a means to protect herself and others from the turmoil – she’s making her own. The paintings themselves shield and give safety, they are physical and substantial and present.

Thomas is not concerned with breaking and entering – the vulnerability she examines is internal. She takes as her subject ideas of human strength and weakness – coping mechanisms and emotional survival techniques. More than being just illustrative of shelter, Thomas’ paintings are a form of shelter in themselves, some colours applied thickly, like mortar, others a wash thin as a layer of skin.

Thomas sticks to the surface and keeps her planes shallow. The edges of her forms are visible and so are the brushstrokes – you can see the stuff they’re made of. Earlier works are characterised by vast gouache planes, very flat, very perfect. These days, she often embraces the marks she makes: now, not only will she “bust up a shape if it looks like a real object”, she will “scrape into something to bury it a little.” She adds: “I think that is all to do with life and getting a little older, and realising that perfection is a fool’s game.” The reworked areas resemble scars in the skin-thin paint layer: in Thomas’ words, each work begins to have its own “archaeology”, with “old marks left by history”.

Thomas speaks softly and carries a big brush, to borrow from Roosevelt. Her canvases sometimes pulse with colour; sometimes they’re mute in grey. Her numinous views through so many picture-pane windows are peeks into the frustratingly mundane and simultaneously tumultuous internal landscape of human relationships. In the works that followed her own personal trauma, Thomas’ opponent is invisible, and her scenes are ones of a more generalised chaos born of others’ great fractures. These are afterimages, impressions and interpretations of traumas past.

Among them, Safe as houses is particularly bleak. The flayed skin of one shelter is removed, revealing flimsy frames beneath. Thomas works in opposites, though, and reminds us that the frame is the most stable of any construction, as the skeleton is to the body. Even in this stark, skeletal greyness tones hum, whisper, and the lines almost hiss as they trace circuits around the forms. The opposing tension of presence and lack belays balance and calm – it’s not all doom and gloom. Thomas is careful to always work in negative space in her compositions, giving both herself and the viewer “breathing space”. It’s another kind of shelter, really.

Thomas’ masterful use of colour is not so much limited as restrained. Bold works like those in her Portrait series are positively lush and confident, even romantic. In these works, Thomas used still life as stand-ins for real lives, specifically the lives of her friends. Swathes of cadmium yellow, quinacridone red and deep mossy olive – these works are characterised by colours so animated you can almost taste them. The personalities of these works glow, and the tone is no longer a whisper but lively conversation – they are portraits of friends, after all.

Fragile 1 and 2 are thoughtful in their unfinished-ness. The pencil is visible and forms dissipate into grey ground like so many unmaterialised cool words. This conversational, dialetic quality applies to the rest of Thomas’ works too – something about the tight weave of forms and muted tones feels like eavesdropping on hushed conversation. The impression of a receding mass, a chaotic panorama, is on slightly different ground between the two halves of the diptych, like the views out the same window at different times of day and some raised tones – pink, orange, navy – spike resolutely in this breakable scene.

Like the resilient, brightly coloured forms in Fragile 1 and 2, so much fluidity and chaos does not go unchecked in Thomas’ universe. Like many of the greats before her, Thomas found a way to insert herself covertly as a motif: the vessel. The Harmonised Chaos series does what it says on the tin – it is an exercise in Thomas capturing and calming the composition. A form can be found, perched usually in the lower left, a battlement over which the chaos of curved, etched lines in paint and tumbling structures is seen. In these works, Thomas sits unobtrusively in the bottom corner, small but steadfast, solid in a sea of translucence.

In her examination of the pain, the body, and language, Elaine Scarry asserts that “It is only when the body is comfortable, when it has ceased to be an obsessive object of perception and concern, that consciousness develops other objects.”[3] In a way, Thomas’ subject has always been a kind of pain. With the evolution of the vessel, though, comes a different view of that painful experience. Thomas appears now to be looking out at pain, or down on it, from an elevated viewpoint that allows her an altogether different vista. The clarity that Thomas asserts comes with age was, in her case at least, always there. Now, though, that pain is not part of her identity – it does not define her, and it does not define her works. She has left her pain behind, and gone walkabout to look through new windows at an altogether less threatening world. 

Copyright Amy Stewart 2016


(1) Stilgoe, Foreword to 1994 edition of Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space, p. vii.

(2)  Ibid.

(3) Scarry, Elaine, The Body in Pain, p. 39.


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