Jon Thompson: the Lyotard Suite

London 18 September – 25 October 2014, Anthony Reynolds Gallery

By J.J. Charlesworth

Delay, 2014, acrylic and oil on canvas, 160 × 180 cm. © the artist. Courtesy Anthony Reynolds Gallery, London

If abstract painting currently gets a lot of positive attention in contemporary art, the flipside is that many of the tropes of abstraction are indulged without really being scrutinised, and consequently run the risk of becoming stylistic nostalgia. The ‘heroic’ moment of abstraction is long gone, and although senior figures like Bridget Riley still command respect, it’s easier for most to accept the sceptical squeegee-ing of a Gerhard Richter or a Christopher Wool, while young painters get plaudits for the slightest of chuck-it-at-the-canvas conceits. ‘Hard’, geometric abstraction has few exponents, so it’s good to see someone like Jon Thompson show what it means to be rigorous with the means a painter decides to deploy. Thompson’s work since the 1960s has been overshadowed by his reputation as an educationalist and a critic, but these latest paintings demonstrate Thompson’s acute critical understanding of his medium, and its continuing potential.

Thompson’s geometric forms, seem to slide around, open up or unfold on the canvas, provoking a sense of them possessing not just good-old-fashioned ‘optical depth’, but an almost bodily imitation of an ‘inside’ into which we find ourselves peering

Hard-edge, colour-field – these are figures one instantly recognises among Thompson’s Lyotard Suite paintings (all works 2014). There’s little here that offers harmony or equilibrium or totemic authority, however. Instead one finds a vibrant, dancing sense of instability. Across every canvas Thompson plays with the inability of our visual perception to handle unresolved and conflicting forms, where one’s eye and mind is looking for recognisable patterns, rhythms or sequences. These paintings are full of the optical clash of complementary colours, in which solemn primaries jostle against cheery, decorative tones of orange, ochre, mint, cyan or purplish grey. Thompson’s geometric forms, meanwhile, seem to slide around, open up or unfold on the canvas, provoking a sense of them possessing not just good-old-fashioned ‘optical depth’, but an almost bodily imitation of an ‘inside’ into which we find ourselves peering.

Delay, for example, is a sort of dull orange saltire formed in the spaces between four light-blue triangles, subtly varied in tone and hue. No line projects to meet another, and the whole is jointed together off-kilter, rotating like a Catherine wheel, with the points of the triangles producing bouncing retinal aftershadows with each move of one’s eyeballs. It’s an effect which provokes the apprehension of physical movement and material space, of an aperture in the moment of closing or opening. Similar triangles appear to be prising apart in Stretch or Fissure, or, as with the complicated diamond of Sponge, unfold, like origami petals, from the picture plane. That these paintings begin to seem active and almost animate, organic things isn’t accidental. Nor is there anything perfection-obsessed about these canvases. All over these apparently flat areas of colour are dapples of barely visible brushmarks. Pencil markings appear at close range – in the flutter of bunting-like triangles scattered across the grey ground of Blazon one or two triangles are left uncoloured. Thompson isn’t being casual; rather the looseness makes for a further cognitive tension just at that point when one’s visual attention shifts from detail to whole.

One might investigate Thompson’s stated interest in philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, and the latter’s unfinished commentaries on the Confessions of St Augustine (398), in which, the press text informs us, the philosopher ‘adopts a phenomenological approach to the relationship between body and spirit, sensing and thinking’. But even without this, Thompson’s paintings make their own case for the libidinal (to use Lyotard’s favourite term) pleasure produced when strictly visual sensations seem to open on those of touch and movement, as one’s thoughts struggle, surprised and delighted, when faced with an object that appears both constantly, restlessly changing and yet irrefutably, perfectly still. 

This article was first published in the December 2014 issue.