With unforgiveable belatedness, I’ve only recently discovered the work that Gwenn Thomas was doing in the mid-1990s, a hybrid of painting and photography that resulted in canvases (or, more accurately, linens) that were extremely innovative when they were made and surprisingly timely today. I’m equally impressed by Thomas’s more recent work, but here I want to concentrate exclusively on her 1990s works.
Looking at Flag (1993) or the “Awning” series (1993-1994) it’s not at all easy to deduce Thomas’s process. She deploys sets of subtly irregular stripes in gradations from white to gray to black (horizontal in Flag, vertical or diagonal in the Awning series). There’s no evidence of facture; the paint, you think, has soaked seamlessly into the linen support; these must be riffs on Color Field Painting, sans the bright colors, late iterations of stripe paintings in the mode of Kenneth Noland and Gene Davis. Declining color for the more muted pleasures of grisaille imparts a sense of distance to Thomas’s compositions. There’s a kind of impersonal, hypnotic quality to these works that recalls TV test patterns from the 1950s and early video art. But the overall effect is hardly mechanical: imperfections and irregularities abound. We are in a realm of low-fi visuals, a dirty formalism that has been filtered through a rigorous and skeptical process. Clearly, Thomas learned something about the painting-photography dialogue from Gerhard Richter, but took it a step further, dispensing with the (for her) unnecessary apparatus of paint and its application.
It turns out that these paintings haven’t been “painted” at all. Thomas’s process involved first making small collages from strips of paper, packing tape, cardboard, and corrugated plastic, which she then photographed with an 8-by-10-inch camera. The next step took place in a commercial photo studio with a giant darkroom (the studio specialized in printing billboard posters). There, Thomas used an 11-by-14 enlarger mounted on tracks to expose her negatives onto linen supports that had been prepared with black-and-white photo emulsion. These paintings, then, are actually photographs printed onto linen.
At a moment when unpainted paintings seem to be everywhere (to say nothing of abstract photography), Thomas’s work looks incredibly prophetic. Decades before Wade Guyton, Mark Flood and a host of others discovered the artistic potential of the ink-jet printer, Thomas was making hands-off paintings of conceptual rigor and unassuming beauty. Of course, from Rauschenberg and Warhol on many artists have used a variety of transfer techniques including silkscreening and photo emulsion to realize paintings. One of the things that distinguishes Thomas from her predecessors is the handmade origin of her photographically reproduced images. If you look closely, you can detect signs of their tactile beginnings, especially the subtle shadows created by the angled lighting Thomas used when she photographed her collages. Barely visible in the “Awning” works, this three-dimensional effect is more pronounced in two series “Kino” (1995) and the Brancusi-inspired “Pog-an-ee” (1996) as well works such as Zaum (1996-1997), IZ Abstract (1994), Gly-Gly (1994).
If the “Awning” series evokes Color Field Painting (as well as the work of Daniel Buren and aspects of Supports/Surfaces), the central dialogue in most of her black-and-white work is with figures from high modernism: Moholy-Nagy, Mondrian, Brancusi, Man Ray. The titles Zaum, IZ Abstract and Gly-Gly reference Russian Constructivists Lyubov Popova and Varvara Stepanova. Thomas also drew (and continues to draw) inspiration from Anni Albers and Sonia Delaunay. She clearly is committed to dislodging male dominance of the modernist canon. Part homage, part ironic reinvention, Thomas’s 1990s abstractions can be seen as following the 1980s work of Peter Halley, Phillip Taaffe, Sherrie Levine, but their deft shuffling of the material and the immaterial, of the object and its image, orient them toward the future (i.e., now) rather than the past.
So far, Thomas’s 1990s black and white emulsion paintings have been overlooked in accounts of New York abstraction. At the time they were shown at Black & Greenberg, a long-vanished SoHo gallery. More recently, they were the subject of an exhibition in 2011 at Art Projects International, the New York gallery that currently represents Thomas. Several were also included in the 2014 survey “Gwenn Thomas: Moments of Place” at the University of Syracuse’s Point of Contact Gallery. She is also represented by the Berlin gallery Exile, whose website features a selection of her recent work plus some fascinating documentary photographs she took of performances by Joan Jonas and Jack Smith. For anyone interested in learning more about Thomas’s work, which often incorporates photographs of the built environment (from dilapidated spaces on Ellis Island to a mysterious window in Lisbon), the best place to start is probably the monograph published on her work by Charta in 2013, with texts by various authors. Although it seems to be already out of print, Amazon has copies.