Mark Thompson, skull whisperer

Mark Thompson is enshrined in the hearts of all those in love and those who can remember. Love and remember what? A time and place for starters, when art bemused, bedazzled, bollocked and rollicked — in short, engaged public audiences through wit, satire and whimsy.

When did that last happen? February 5, 1916, the opening night in Zurich of the Cabaret Voltaire perhaps or an era across 17th to 18th century Europe when artists were commissioned by nobility to create opulent costumes, amazing scenery and special effects for masques.

Serendipitously, Thompson began his creative journey during Adelaide’s baroque flowering of possibilities in the early 1970s. Our “Florence on the Torrens” as artist Bert Flugelman called it, with “Lorenzo the Magnificent” Dunstan pumping the arts, provided the ideal setting for an out of town lad (Darwin) to make his mark. A segue into sculptural ceramics gave Thompson inside position on the Skangaroovian Funk wave that was breaking on a public primed for an art, which amused and subverted conventions, taste and fashionable trends in contemporary art such as minimalism, and hard-edge painting. Thompson had a taste of the latter while at art school and left unconvinced.

Mark Thompson, L’Ange, pastel on handmade paper, 16 x 120 cm (image courtesy BMG Art)

Perhaps he was fortunate to have begun his career at a time when it was still possible to spark outrage by flaunting such things as nudity and a hint of transgender. Imagine restaging The Pavilion of Death, Dreams and Desire, (The Rotunda, Elder Park, Adelaide Festival of Arts, 1982) today? It might get a reaction from moral crusaders but others I suspect might think they were looking at a Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras float. Thompson’s creative instincts and skills as a designer since 1984, across all art forms including opera, music theatre, circus, dance and drama, continues to spill into his studio practice with its quicksilver quotes, winks and nods to all kinds of historical styles and personalities. The ‘glue’ that holds this Rabelaisian romp together is a confident grasp of absurdist narrative.

The scenarios and characters that animate these most recent paintings and ceramic sculptures (which resemble death masks or funerary effigies) are nonsensical or bizarre. But the manner in which various persons or items sit with such calm assurance within the same pictorial space (such as Jean-Etienne Liotard’s The Chocolate Girl bearing a tray on which rests an Albert Namatjira watercolour, and also includes a chimpanzee and contemporized figure of the colourful artist Liotard) imposes a weird sense of logic. The chimp, incidentally, might be a reference to the contemporary opera, Lucy, based on a 1960s real life story of one such animal raised for 11 years within a psychotherapist’s home as a ‘daughter’.

Everything in Thompson’s art has some kind of back story. That’s certainly the case with two paintings, which revisit the story of Eliza Fraser. To cut to the chase, Eliza, on surviving a shipwreck in 1836 on current day Fraser Island, lived with the local Indigenous (Butchulla) people until being rescued.

Mark Thompson, Eliza Fraser and her London baggage, oil on canvas, 120 x 90 cm (image courtesy BMG Art)

Thompson’s interrogation is cognizant of Fraser’s subsequent casting of her experience as deliverance from brutal ‘savages’ — a theme picked up in her published story and that of the press and Christian missionaries. Eliza Fraser’s claim eventually led to the massacre and dispossession of the island’s tribe. Fraser’s pimping of her story to London audiences is underscored by Thompson as venal and opportunistic.

These images and the spectre of a naked white woman alone in the bush resonate with Sidney Nolan’s Eliza Fraser series begun in the late 1940s. The fact that scholars are still sifting through the fragments to decide if Nolan was reflecting on his shipwrecked relationship with Sunday Reed, through this series, is reason enough to keep the gaze fixed on these two cheeky images. If you look hard enough you might find a little of the Tim Burstall (Eliza Fraser, 1976) film’s bawdiness peeping through the petticoats.

Mark Thompson, Palmyra Ain’t All it’s Cracked up to Be, oil on canvas, 180 x 120 cm (image courtesy BMG Art)

Now why Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, should be looking at a post card of Circe Invidiosa, while her city burns is anyone’s guess – until you check out the latest news about Syria. A Chinese emperor in resplendent robes, with a self-portrait head of American realist painter Chuck Close, flanked by a couple of School of Mantegna lads is even more absurd.

Thompson describes this bricolaging as a device to “provoke in the viewer a memory of the familiar”. This may explain a strong element of artifice in the juxtapositioning of different visual elements, and multiple light sources and perspectives. This ‘pop up’ look, complemented by an obvious delight in ornamentation, is reminiscent of ‘60s British Pop, particularly the work of Peter Blake. So, keep a note book handy when viewing this show and take names — Blake, Close, Liotard, Nolan, Joseph Leyendecker, Pietro Longhi, Johann Kaendler, William Dobson, Singer Sargent and Pirandello.

Master of the Revels and Skull Whisperer Mark Thompson is back in town.

Mark Thompson
BMG Art
Friday, May 18 to Saturday, June 9
bmgart.com.au

Header image: Mark Thompson, Close Ancestor (detail.), oil on canvas, 180 x 180 cm (image courtesy BMG Art)

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