"Kinney Lake Bather"
Jesse Thomas, "Kinney Lake Bather," 2014, oil on canvas, 64" x 40".
JESSE THOMAS: Songs From the Labyrinth
Fine Arts Building Gallery, University of Alberta, Edmonton
Jan. 20 to Feb. 14, 2015
By Agnieszka Matejko
If we could record our thoughts and then play them back, most people would be declared barely on the edge of sanity. Endless circles, random associations and meanderings of the mind almost miraculously come together to make up character and personality.
Such thoughts arise as I view collage-like paintings and drawings by American-born artist Jesse Thomas, a recent addition to the University of Alberta faculty. These works, created over the last year, include a dizzying array of imagery from history and current events as well as cultural allusions and autobiographical moments.
Jesse Thomas, "Clewe," 2014, oil on canvas, 35" x 40".
Such complexity imbues the show with I Spy fascination. Each time I look, another reference is revealed. For example, Tintoretto’s Susanna and the Elders is set against a backdrop of a modern-day rock musician. Some allusions are clear: former Chilean president Salvador Allende floats next to Henry Kissinger and Pablo Neruda. But hidden within these works are subtler references to sarcophagi, Roman ruins, cultural icons and more.
In the earlier works, this cornucopia descends into a well-composed and carefully rendered pandemonium – it’s like scanning the Internet. If the show was a few months earlier, it might have been a curious yet headache-inducing experience. But something happens in the most recent works. Thomas has worked through his stream-of-consciousness associations and memories to arrive at a culminating moment: the many become a cohesive whole.
In these latest paintings, Thomas – an artist well versed in art history – draws on masterly precedents. For example, Renaissance artists often placed biblical imagery in the Tuscan landscape. Thomas’ compositions are also firmly anchored in the present moment: the university campus. In fact, as I gaze at the landscape depicted in Stanley Falls, I see the window of gallery in which I am standing.
Jesse Thomas, "Stanley Falls," 2014, oil on canvas, 65" x 53"
This bright, ordinary winter day in Edmonton contrasts sharply with the painting’s shadowy interior. Brilliant reds, reminiscent of Titian’s vermilions, punctuate the darkness. Foreboding and murky waterfalls occupy the foreground. Above is a ribbon of figures. One – the artist himself – is digging, or perhaps raking, a painting by Francis Bacon. It sits in muddy ground as rising smoke forms spectres of the powerful CEOs of financial empires Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase.
The poetic, dream-like logic of this scene blends autobiographical moments, world events and the distant recesses of history. The result is eclectic yet seamless. It’s as if Thomas turned the telescope around to gaze not at distant stars but inward. These paintings explore the daily workings of the mind: the thoughts, impressions and experiences that compose the self. It’s an ambitious project that stretches the boundaries of painting, and a few works succeed admirably.