By Jacob Feige
Corruption, bodies, and sexuality are foremost in my mind as I look over the nine works in Tracy Thomason’s first solo exhibition at Tiger Strikes Asteroid, Highlights, Low Fades, and Deep Cuts. I’m surprised by my own thinking, really, because the deconstructed, highly material canvases and single freestanding sculpture that comprise the show are firmly planted in twentieth century abstraction. There are nods to the experimental Italian painter Alberto Burri in fabric pasted onto canvas, gestural homages to Joan Miró and Georgia O’Keefe, and even a few forms that channel the minimalist painter Robert Mangold. Thomason, who lives in Brooklyn, expands these twentieth century tropes, making them vulnerable, nostalgic, tarnished, and exuberant through material association and degradation.
The materials list for Surround and Compress (all work 2011) reads “Hand-felted wool, LA Looks hair gel, pencil prudence, and oil on canvas.” The piece is a wooden hoop that precisely inscribes a square canvas touched with subtle gestural marks and diagonal lines. A dirty rainbow of felt wraps around the hoop, and I’m reminded of cotton candy on wet pavement that I saw as I left the circus twenty-five years ago. The marks on the surface of the canvas, which are straight abstract painting from six feet away, resolve into the residue of bodily fluids or cheap cleaning products on closer inspection. Made with hair gel, they make me think of a dirty, sweet smelling bathroom. I feel a little guilty and voyeuristic just looking at this work.
For all its material association, I’m brought back to the diagonal lines, irregular, hard-edged blobs, and general formality of this work. These are, after all, highly composed pieces, carefully considered, largely balanced, and formally resolved. Reconciling the two sides of Thomason’s work—the part that makes me think of Robert Mangold and the old cotton candy part—is the most difficult and interesting part of the show.
Materiality’s supreme position in painting has been an institutional and aesthetic norm since the modernist critic Clement Greenberg insisted on it in the early 1950s. Art that acted outside its own material character, so Greenberg said, subordinated itself to other genres, especially literature. I have to admit that I find it irksome when contemporary artists bow down to this staid idea more than sixty years after it was first articulated. A recent resurgence in this Ab-Ex philosophy makes me extra-wary. On the surface, Thomason is a materialist in the modernist vein, avoiding transcendence and limiting her approaches to straightforward manipulations and applications. Considered more associatively, there’s a whole lot to think about in the old felt, cosmetics, and traditional materials that comprise this work.
In Chatter Dusting Light, zebra-print fabric practically falls off the canvas, irregular ends just barely touching the floor. There’s some spray tan on the zebra print, according to the materials list. I think about real zebras, then fake zebra prints, and then a fake tan on someone wearing a crummy zebra print. Before long, a narrative portrait of sorts emerges, telling an ambiguous story cobbled together from the past uses and lives of the stuff in the painting. The abstracted orifices, eyelashes, and mustaches in nearly every piece in Highlights, Low Fades, and Deep Cuts take these narratives in seedy, bodily directions.
Thomason’s work delves into materiality in such complex ways as to break through to the other side, ultimately telling formalism to shove off in favor of open-ended, hair gel and zebra print association. This is a tricky brand of abstraction that brings faded, worn memories into materialism as it flirts with you. Greenberg would’ve hated it, and I hope that Thomason would consider that a compliment.
Jacob Feige is an artist and teacher. His work has recently been shown at Chambers FA, Beijing, Movement, UK, and Jolie Laide, Philadelphia.