Douglas Thomson is a Glaswegian and although he has travelled widely, and lived (and shown) in Germany for months at a time, he is Glasgow through and through, in the sense that he is ultimately attached to the place in which he lives and works. Something of a clear silvery light and the gritty nature of his native city informs his work. Living elsewhere, which he has done, and will continue to do, is being away.
Yet his work is not Glasgow School, albeit he was trained at the Glasgow School of Art. Certainly, his education and career overlaps some of the Glasgow Pups, the nickname given to a current group of disparate artists, linked by geographical origin, their fervour, their skill, and their adherence to some form of expressive figuration.
Thomson’s work, unlike many of his colleagues, does not quote with voracious relish from other artists and makes little if any social comment. He tells us not of communal life now, of society at the brink, disquieting or hilarious, and makes no instant myth in a whirl of baroque flourishes.
His work concentrates entirely on the human figure, drawn from the imagination. Without being in the least minimal, Thomson’s painting, or rather, his repertoire of characteristic images – is pared down, reductive, refined. Curiously deadpan, even occasionally banal, sometimes expressionless, bland, poker-faced, Thomson’s people at times bear an uncanny resemblance to those of the great chronicler of American emotions, manners, and mores James Thurber crossed with Easter Island, those mysterious giants here fleshed in the most delicate hues of the carapace of living and breathing skin. There is a hint of Pygmalion, as though the stone figures of Cyclades were stirring into life, a life of awkward grace.
His technique is tied, after some flirtation with acrylic, to the tradition of oil paint on canvas, and to the painstaking risk (a neatly tense contradiction in terms) of the monoprint. Educated as a painter, Thomson has worked extensively as a technician, and making his own prints, at the Glasgow Print Studio, where a major one man show last March of his paintings and monoprints, attracted international attention and enthusiasm.
Thomson, like all singular artists, has come upon his own magic combination of subject and technique. He will work a painting over and over, scraping down and building up, although the impasto is delicate rather than overtly demanding. The paint has substance, a subtle gleam and texture. Thomson’s paintings are based on very odd figures indeed, both human and humanoid: still, pliant, yielding, and simultaneously, stiff, and slightly fantastical, as though characters from a puppet show had somehow ended up off stage and in a curious limbo land.
The figures are set into vast landscapes, landscapes simply of gently variegated colour and texture, a texture sometimes like shot silk. The figures are always seen from the front, with firm outlines, sometimes from the hip up, sometimes from the waist or torso, sometimes from the knee. The backgrounds are sometimes quietly incandescent, the paint almost ruffled as though a wind had moved through the colour. The figures are curiously ambiguous, sharply outlined, with stylised sexual features of breasts and genitals. Women are identified as such because they have long hair and stylised breasts, just a curved line; the men are typically hairless, their faces often bear suggestions of flesh coloured masks.
The best art is ambiguous, open-ended, unexpected, remains surprising: it is not a final statement, but a series of questions. The gently distorted bodies, the imposing faces, often out of proportion, gently dominant, of Thomson’s people, fascinate; what makes a mask, and the corollary, what is expression, fascinates. The colour change, the blue of the sky – indeed, is it a sky? Sometimes menacing, sometimes serene, the flesh sometimes translucent sometimes putrescent.
Thomson creates, in paintings, monoprints, and sculptures of heads, a world of his own. It is an alternative world, a world of myth? What seems to me most clear is that capturing the viewer with a subtle web of colour, form and texture, Thomson proposes an almost endless variety of human relationships. There are hints of sexuality, of dominance. There are paintings of couples – friends, lovers – and of people alone, of people gently touching each other, or standing side by side. His titles, after the fact, make the spectrum clear. The Dreamer; The Performer; The Stranger; Volte-Face; Meditation; Nightfall; By the Sea; The Conversation.
Within his chosen minimalist figuration, Thomson extracts, by sharpening and concentrating his vision, and, with his, ours, an extraordinary breadth and depth of emotion – and speculation. Every picture does tell a storey. Here is endless room for the imagination of the spectator to expand; just in real life relationships, there are amalgamations of varied, even contradictory emotions, so too in Thomson’s art: passion, dispassion, indifference, involvement. Just as the paint is multi-layered, so too, are the meanings and emotions. Thomson is forging an unusual, recognisable idiom in which to express a satisfyingly elaborate choreography of human feeling.
Marina Vaizey, art critic for The Sunday Times