Hayley Tompkins’ work is easily many things: subtle, intuitive, abstract, intimate. But it is not easily photogenic. Tompkins recently sent me images of her contribution to a group exhibition at the CCA, Glasgow, six images, to be precise, for only four works. The surplus were photographs of a single painting coincidentally entitled ‘Variations’.
In the first image, ‘Variations’, 2008, a large tray collaged with photo fragments and painted in gold and silver, appeared to be simply variegated taupe. The second was pale mustard faded with silver, the third gold and dapple-grey. That this protean painting required three images was a case in point, disclosing foremost exactly how little a single photograph could disclose. Tompkins’ paintings are unphotogenic; something vital and fugitive resides in their atmosphere. Compounded by the small scale of many of her works (the first time I saw images of the dainty ‘Metabuilts’, I misconstrued painted twigs for fat branches), reproductions of Tompkins’ pieces can be equivocal or downright deficient.
But the three variations of ‘Variations’ also emphasise the versatility and manifold presence of Tompkins’ work. Combining a subtle materiality with spontaneous, mnemonic landscapes, Tompkins’ paintings and objects might seem oddly lyrical. Sometimes they are so small that you have to crouch to see them, whereupon they appear to flush like embers; other times their irridescence is best enjoyed from afar. In both cases, they seem tenderly crafted—not as the word is used to congratulate technical proficiency, but as it goes with the hand-built or ‘arts and crafts’.
The hand-built is both an aspect of Tompkins’ production and a refrain that surrounds it. She calls her heterogeneous constructions made mostly from twigs and photo snippets ‘Metabuilts’. Her exhibition at Inverleith House in Edinburgh is entitled Autobuilding. Construction nonetheless takes on a very particular, even peculiar sense for her, one perhaps closer to painting than sculpture.
Tompkins, who was born in the evocative Leighton Buzzard, England, moved to Glasgow to study painting in 1990, where she has remained. Early forays into figurative painting eventually gave way to the paradoxically defiant and delicate abstractions for which she is most known, ranging from paper saturated with patterns, to stray marks on torn-out notebook pages that looked to be as absent-mindedly begun as aborted.
Then Tompkins began incorporating objects into her work. ‘I was making paintings that looked like plans,’ she explained last spring in a talk at The Drawing Room, London. ‘…like they were suggesting themselves to be built…eventually I understood I was painting an object.’
The segue from paint to blueprint to building, all within the wide net of abstraction, says as much about the organic development of Tompkins’ practice as it does about abstraction in the fallout from postmodernism. No longer self-referentially contending to either enact or destroy painting, Tompkins’ abstraction seems to hearken back to the expanded, visionary definition of content championed by Leo Steinberg.
Steinberg rejects the view that abstract art is non-representational, asserting instead that abstraction is a response to nature ‘in its latest undisguise’ (the revelations of physics in the 1950s on the constant mutability and immaterial functioning of matter), and that abstract painting has sustained art’s social role of ‘fixating thought in aesthetic form’. His thesis didn’t stick, but it does set the tone for Tompkins’ simultaneous intuitions of intangibility and representation in her paintings-quasi-plans. Robert Johnston writes feelingly, ‘[Tompkins’ work] does one very simple and kind of old-fashioned thing as well as millions of complex things. It tries to express things for which there aren’t really words; real, recognisable things that I can’t describe but which I feel are incontrovertibly there.’ Fixating thought in aesthetic form, Tompkins makes objects of the things you would never consider to represent, and yet, there they are.
Elsewhere, she has called this quality a kind of hypothetical relation, in that her paintings and objects appear to exist only ‘as if’, as an echo of something if only one could represent it. In a series of untitled watercolours from 2007, squares of roughly the same size troop over large sheets of sketchbook paper, painted out to the crenellated edge of the binding.
In the first of one pair of these watercolours, the squares toward the bottom of the page are murky maroon, as though partly submerged in the feathered black ground. Higher up, the red clarifies. The ‘Metabuilts’ are… somewhere between dream, reconstruction and product…with the emphasis perhaps falling in that order and a few squares escape off the page. In the second watercolour, all the squares have achieved a pure and throbbing cadmium, and seem to be migrating forward, past the margins. The narrative progression between these two paintings adds pathos to the square binder holes lining the left side, which now look not only vacant but paralyzed, while the painted squares act out their amoebic dream life.
Her ‘Metabuilt’ sculptures are similarly dream-like, if more complicatedly. Tompkins adorns twigs with clay and tiny pieces of photographs, usually of interiors and exteriors that might appear in the background of an amateur snapshot. Though anonymous, these slivers have an indexical and intimate quality. They seem less to represent a particular spot than to evoke one’s way of remembering it, as if to say: if you knew that place, then this twig would be your recollection. (In an email about their name, Tompkins wrote that the ‘Metabuilts’ are ‘…somewhere between dream, reconstruction and product’, with the emphasis perhaps falling in that order).
These ‘hypothetical’ objects are one way of negotiating artistic production in an over-produced and super-saturated culture. Self-effacement is another. Many of Tompkins’ works are so fragile and sometimes so forsaken as to half-erase themselves from existence. Paradoxically, the surrounding space, which should reasonably overwhelm these diminutive objects, valorizes them instead. Their diffi dent gestures come to seem heroic, particularly because they aren’t creative as such: lots look just like scraps, others naïve artifice, as with the ‘Metabuilt’s’ metallic enamel paint, used to replicate casts without really caring to convince.
This suggests an alternative answer to the problem of creativity, which conventional contemporary art tends to resolve with glib citation and post-ironic appropriation. Tompkins is coming from another place altogether, striving, she says, to make something she doesn’t recognise. The ‘meta’ of ‘Metabuilts’ implies some overarching logic reaching beyond the hand of its maker. This, however, sounds misleadingly mystical. Despite their oneiric oddness, the ‘Metabuilts’ are domestic objects, constructed on an intimate scale from the kind of stuff one finds lying about, like scrapbook oddments or fallen branches on the grass. Like Jasper Johns, Tompkins integrates these everyday objects into paintings without subsuming their ordinariness. If for Johns, ‘preformed subject matter is a condition of painting’, for Tompkins it is a means of questioning the condition of paint, quietly and insistently.
‘Advent VI’, 2008, is a large format monochrome on wood. Two vertical planks, perpendicular to the wall, divide it roughly into thirds, with the centre portion occupied by an inverted soap dispenser. The wood and dispenser are uniformly covered in strokes of silver paint in the spirit of Johns’ ‘Drawer’, 1957. The conventions of display (shelves, or in ‘Variations’, the tray) are inverted, making these objects not ready-mades but rather arbitrary figures in a composition that, like for Johns, serve a formal function. For Johns, this function was flatness. For Tompkins, it is support. Wrapping a painted surface around an identifiable object provides a means for exploring abstraction, divorced from the expressive selection of subject matter, distanced from both the modernist project and its postmodernist rejection, and finally from the post-ironic stance toward debates generally held around New York’s Lower East Side. The last to go is Tompkins herself, who appears, after all, merely like a broker for this testing and meta-building. ‘I think they look like quite old things,’ she resolves. ‘To me, they look like I found them.’
Tompkins and I first met early on a Sunday morning because her studio, temporarily located in a spare room of her fl at, gets limited daylight. In fact, it gets only daylight, which in winter time, means breakfast time or bust. As it turns out, these were ideal conditions for an introduction to her work; domestic, and governed by its environment. Tompkins frequently seizes upon context in her shows as an occasion for play and intervention.
In a solo exhibition at Andrew Kreps Gallery in 2003, Tompkins installed a giant block in the centre of the space so that viewers had to navigate this solid white cube to discover the small paintings around it. Some of her works directly address the art space by interjecting domestic elements. In a collaboration with Sue Tompkins and the architectural firm Caruso St John at Spike Island, Bristol, the sisters designed the canteen with simple kitchen chairs, painstakingly tattooed with freehand hatches and stripes. Three of these chairs presided over a projection of Tompkins’ ‘Lent Moving Pictures’ at a recent solo exhibition at Galerie Giti Nourbakhsch, Berlin, recalling Mary Heilman’s brightly woven armchairs.
‘Lent Moving Pictures’, 2007, is Tompkins’ first film. Like her second, ‘Interstice’, 2008, it is composed with a simple digital camera in movie mode that tremulously captures intervals of still images. In ‘Lent Moving Pictures’, Tompkins gleans these images from a fashion magazine. Filmed close to the page, the 13 minute long DVD features low definition, bleary passages of colour and the occasional recognisable object. The only sound is the camera function twitching on and off, stammering like a forgotten movement to John Cage’s ‘Variations V’. An opening sequence of stratified haloes precedes an allegro of plaids and shirt collars, followed by a delightful comic shot of a man’s shoe that, through the repetitive rotation of the camera above the page, appears to dance a slow soft-shoe. Tompkins describes her procedure as ‘looking for space in a magazine’, the camera functioning as a spy glass rather than a frame. Stripped not only of its production values but its status as the trumping seventh art, Tompkins’ camera works like visual sonar, effectively re-imagining the ‘artist’s film’ as the film used by artists to borrow images from the world. Her films are consequently ‘moving pictures’ with the literal charm the term once possessed.
As the story goes, the first publicly screened movie, the Lumière brothers’ Train Pulling into a Station, 1895, was so vivid that its audience fled the theater, incapable of distinguishing between the actual and the hypothetical action. If, a century since, on-screen action has become the channel of common experience and not the enchantment of it, Tompkins’ films make that technology strange again: doubling it over itself, taking away its seamlessness, and marking new seams with the gasps and ticks of her instrument.
Reincarnating film’s original fascinations with a beginner’s humility and a bit of clumsiness, she seems to invent, as if by accident, the one kind of photography capable of capturing her images: one that reveals what is, if only hypothetically, before your eyes.
Joanna Fiduccia is a writer based in Paris
Hayley Tompkins, Autobuilding, Inverleith House, Edinburgh, 21 February-19 April