Emma Thomsen first exhibited at the Depot in 2003 and currently teaches on the Foundation Course at Whitecliffe. She teaches classes in drawing, painting, design and figure studies and tells me that she has the best job in the whole world. Emma enjoys the interaction with her students; that she learns from them just as the work she produces herself informs how she teaches. She started painting and drawing at about the age of eight, having previously wanted to be an astronaut. I don’t know what kind of astronaut she would have made, but I’m glad she decided to become an artist.
Emma Thomsen’s drawings are fine and intricate, in direct contrast to the subject matter. “These are drawings of dirt” Emma told me, not using the words soil or earth, but dirt. That is the word that lies at the heart of what these drawings are about; the juxtoposition between the simultaneous value and worthlessness of dirt. On one hand there is the monetary value placed on land, and on the other, the dirt that is discarded and swept away and it is this that Thomsen urges us to explore. “I like the rawness of dirt” she tells me. I suppose it is the most fundamental of subject matters.
“Drawing is investigation” she says. However, prior to the drawing there was a lot of preparation for this investigation. Thomsen would go out with a kitchen knife and take stones and dirt from public land, then draw them, photograph them and video them being thrown through the air. Months later, some of these discarded sods sprouted new life, growing back into the land “fusing them back into the earth”. Thomsen says of her exhibition, “Nonlinear Complications transforms the Landscape genre from a traditional, passive object … to one that is more intimate and powerful, with the ability to fight back, as a black parody of myself trying to understand the push and pull of a power struggle”.
In terms of materials for her investigation, Thomsen used silverpoint on canvas, where a stick of actual silver is used as a pencil … “that leaves a line of silver particles on the drawing surface, which continues to darken over time.” It is not a material often used in this way, Thomsen tells me. “Occasionally it is used like this but most commonly with water colour over the top because it doesn’t muddy the colour on top as pencil would”. She admires the American artist Cy Twombly, and having looked at some of his works I can see the connection with the delicate method of using marks and words used to build up images.
Sometimes her children joined in with the drawing, something that Thomsen enjoyed as it “allowed for an element of flux .. so that if I make a comment about dirt , it means everything in the world but at the same time, is completely meaningless”; so the work was out of her hands. The drawings sometimes include blank speech bubbles as well to which she says, “speech is represented as blank, empty or pointless, no matter how hard it tries to become part of the action. You can say things over and over and not be heard; nothing changes”.
Dogs feature in some of her drawings and I asked Thomsen what she meant when she said that humans become dogs in her drawings. “Dogs represent humans at different points in time” she explained and went on describe how a dog is happiest when it has dirt coming up at it from all its digging, or when it is covered in dirt. But even a dog can have too much of a good thing, so one of her works features an exhausted dog, suffering from too much joy.
Thomsen told me a story from her childhood about viewing the landscape. Growing up in the country, her family had two pictures on the wall; one was a Turner portraying a romanticised painting of agricultural life and the other, an aerial photograph of the farm with the boundries marked in red. So here were two opposing views of the landscape; the functional photograph used to work out which paddock the sheep should be in and the Turner idealising agricultural life and showing the beauty of the landscape. I suspect these both represent the passive views of the landscape that Thomsen talks about in her description of Nonlinear Complications, and that she is now, after her long investigation, able to show us her view of an ‘intimate and powerful’ landscape.
Emma Thomsen: Nonlinear Complications
Depot Galleries until Thursday 3 November 2011
– Rachel McDonnell