Rob Thom at Parker Jones

Rob Thom, "Lanza Y," 2011 mixed media, canvas over panel 56 x 43.25''

Gentle reader,

A show is closing this coming Saturday, October 29, that – without really being aware of the fact – I have been waiting to see for three or four years. Rob Thom Wholly Still, Enclosed and Imposed at Parker Jones in Culver City.

I shall include images in this post but be aware – images are representations and act as mere facsimiles of the experience you will have in the gallery, similar to the postcard that you send to represent a month-long vacation Venice. Keeping with the postcard analogy: I really do wish that you were here, and you still have some time. The only flying you’ll need to do is in your mind.

I wonder – are these paintings still lifes? Portraits? Self-portraits? I get the sense from looking that Thom spent a great deal of time with these paintings. This sense I have is not due to any labored feeling in the paint application – although Rob Thom is among the most skilled appliers of medium to canvas in the city – rather this is due to the artist’s careful composition, his acute observations of material and image, and his fruitful explorations into collage and the possibilities of depiction.

Rob Thom "Egghead," 2011 mixed media, canvas over panel 48 x 36"

I have been told that the artist drew from an archive of papers and images, that he selected images that stood out and also that he chose materials for texture, sheen, for the coincidence of a funny edge or for its resemblance to another thing. With a little imagination I can recognize a bird body assembled from a wad of dryer lint, and a found drinking straw that looks like a ruffle from a harlequin’s sleeve and also like an openwork flute carved from bone. I can see the edges of shallow boxes in which I understand Thom organized his bits and pieces. While I do this detective work I begin to look at the surfaces of his paintings. These surfaces are as remarkable as his compositions – what I thought to be a painted gesture outlining a piece of masonite may or may not be painted. Thom has painted in shadows that are convenient to his compositions, but also some of the collaged bits cast their own shadows, and it becomes a race for understanding among my senses, my brain and the painting.

detail from "Lanza Y," (2011 mixed media, canvas over panel 56 x 43.25'')

I think of Lari Pittman when I look at Thom’s paintings. Pittman has a practice of making smooth, seamless paintings that are collections of recognizable images and he has us understand these paintings as abstractions. Put another way, Pittman allows us abstraction as one among several ways to think about the work. Thom uses a similar organizational strategy for his images but has more interest in texture than Pittman. Thom’s brushstrokes have a physical quality to them and he uses paint sometimes to depict and sometimes also to become: in the beautiful weird brown at the bottom right corner of Lanza Y Thom has left some smudges, or perhaps areas that have been sanded away from the sheen of the surface to reveal rougher and looser paint underneath. But wait. When I sit on the floor and really look, I can see that no sanding has taken place and that the scratches that I see have been worked in by the artist and the ‘mistake’ of erasure is painted with care to slow my eye down and entice me to look more deeply. (Such a sweet time I had peering in, crouching down, attempting to feel as much as to see the objects in Rob Thom’s paintings.)

Tomma Abts’ remarkable ability to represent edges in a collage-like manner also comes to mind with Thom’s paintings. When I first saw Abts’ painting, in a show at Marc Foxx Gallery, Foxx explained to me that “Tomma builds up paint against taped edges until they become physical, and then she will paint in another geometric abstraction that pulls against the relief she has created.” Illusion and fact are in tension here.

Rob Thom "Black Box," 2011 mixed media, canvas over panel 48 x 36''

And then there are the people, for it seems that there are nearly always people in Rob Thom’s paintings and drawings. Because this artist draws much of his material from the printed matter of popular culture, these people often seem familiar. They become sort of every people and an emotional connection presents itself, at least in my experience. My emotional connection to the characters is echoed in my empathy for the humble materials that Thom makes use of. I can feel the rough and smooth textures of his paintings with my emotions as much as see them with my eyes.

If I can romanticize I’d say that Rob Thom’s practice reminds me of the myth of the solitary man who lives in a forest far from town, pieces of civilization come his way, and he works these into mysterious and beautiful works of art. Being a man of the earth rather than a man of the world, Thom’s works of art feel human and slightly rough. What this practice exalts is integrity – righteous (and sometimes self-righteous) honesty at the expense of sophistication.

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