It takes time and mooshes everything up like a NutriBullet on power pulse. Looking at Mark Thompson’s recent work at BMG Art felt initially like gazing at a big puddle of ‘deja-view’ as it poured out of the time whiz.
That’s because Thompson has been revisiting ideas and possibilities that first saw the light of day when Don Dunstan opened his show at Adelaide Festival Centre back in the 70s. The wide-eyed figurines are kissing cousins to those Village of the Dammed Dolls with their heads in the waxed fruit ‘n’ flowers arrangement and legs spread to the heavens that catapulted Thompson into prominence in the 70s when Adelaide swapped its cultural chastity belt for a star-spangled G-string and had a Kenny Everett naughty fit. Thompson’s work at the time was characterised by bravura mastery of porcelain modelling and rich polychromatic glazes with trademark gold lustre accents. But wait – there’s more. He, along with other Skangaroovian Funk ceramicists, had his finger on the pulse of Adelaide’s cosy sense of propriety. His subversive sculptures ratcheted up the absurdity of ceremonial table and funerary ware and tipped it into darker realms in which the association of dolls with overheated decorative riot, or overwrought grief, seemed somehow not so healthy, not so nice. This current group of works treads related territory. Doll-like figurines, some with bare bums and exposed genitalia, primp and posture in the nicest possible way as if entertaining dinner guests at a banquet in 18th century Saxony. That’s where (drum roll) the Elector Augustus the Strong held court and created a fashion for porcelain sculptures to adorn tables and fill his Japanese Pavilion in Dresden with fabulous beasties. Thompson has always enjoyed trawling through this mother load of exotic, period taste and styles, cut from their moorings to drift across time and merge with others to create fabulously new forms. This is evident in his set and costume design work, seen recently in the Sydney Opera on the Harbour production of Aida and also in the artist’s previous exhibition at BMG Art consisting of complex canvases that read as backdrops to High Victorian music hall productions set in far away lands and times. The artist describes this as ‘raiding and repurposing ideas’. As one of Australia’s leading set and costume designers, in addition to his achievements as a painter and ceramicist, he has built his practice on a bowerbird principle of collecting ‘bright and shiny’ things from all kinds of sources including newspaper clippings, art book illustrations and websites. “Everything,” Thompson says, “is grist for the mill and nothing is sacred or off limits.” The artist on this outing looks to be taking an expansive ride through 18th century Meissen Land with sudden accelerations into the 70s, then the here and now. The spectral presence of the Brothers Grimm, those early 19th century German funsters, hovers over the exhibition, in title and spirit. There will always be rich pickings in these (ostensibly) children’s stories with their pervy princes, psychotic mothers, cannibalism, toe chopping and infanticide set in rollicking tales of high adventure and bad behaviour. Thompson obliges by casting his two brothers as New Romantics looking a bit like Adam Ant with his pants missing in action. From here it’s mashup city with some Grim(m) characters, such as Cinderella, making cameo appearances alongside a cluster of enigmatic figurines, busts, an elephant, rhinoceros and pug dog, not to mention skulls and some necromancy. Chess players may become excited. Skull to Tea Lady 11. Bob Dylan fans – there’s something special waiting for you on Desolation Row. The commemorative device of the plinths plus the et in arcadia presence of the skulls sets up a reading of these objects as e ffigies of something gone but not quite forgotten. A lesser artistic imagination would have settled for a frou frou of sugar and spice OTT kitsch. But Thompson knows just when to throw in the frogs, snails and puppy dogs’ tails. And how to shock, as seen in Alayan, a panniered 18th century lady, holding a picture of the drowned refugee boy Alayan Kurdi. Expect the unexpected is all that can be said, because that’s the way Thompson works – joining this to that to see what happens. And finally, hold this (speculative) thought. A large scale public work by Mark Thompson, all pattern, colour and gold – and hopefully a bit naughty – sited prominently in Adelaide’s CBD. Talk it up. This city’s been tangled up in brown for far too long. Mark Thompson The Brothers Grim BMG Art Until March 12 2016 bmgart.com.au