Between 1993 and 2000 I frequented openings and events at CBD Gallery (called Project 11 in its final year), an artist run space in Sydney’s central business district. The gallery was the focus of a busy social scene and featured a rapid turnover of exhibitions, performances and other events. It was initiated and run primarily by David M. Thomas, an artist residing in the rooms above the gallery. Thomas’s genuine interest in art and ideas provided a conceptual framework for the development of a multitude of artists' practices, while his presence and sense of professionalism influenced the network that formed around his project.
When Thomas closed the gallery and moved to Brisbane, a sense of social connectivity remained even within his solo projects, where he collaborates with others in creating videos, installations, compositions and performances. While the collaborative nature of his practice contributes to its material output, the underlying connections informing it are based on authentic and ongoing friendships. Collaboration, discussion and physical presence seem essential to Thomas’s ability to function as an artist, and art as activity or concept underlies and informs his relationships.
Art practice has traditionally been accompanied by a sense of the social, with the events and activities of various artists’ groups historically influencing their work and its concepts. In the late 1990s, Nicolas Bourriaud’s formalisation of art as communal event or network via his label ‘relational aesthetics’ tended to abstract the meaning and significance of art in life, compromising the concept’s authenticity. The issues involved in escaping such formalisation, or in fostering a real sense of art in life, are relevant to considerations of Thomas’s recent exhibition Simple Math at Knulp, an artist run space in Sydney.
Some of the artists that organise, regularly attend, or exhibit at Knulp were associated with CBD Gallery twenty years ago, a fact that rendered Simple Math as much a social event or reunion as it was an exhibition. The show was in the installation format frequently employed by Thomas: in one corner, a television monitor, turntable, amplifier and speakers alluded to his interest in the creation and performance of music and video works, components in keeping with his oeuvre. The presence of textile works however represented a notable departure: an arresting mandala sewn from men’s ties confronted the viewer upon entry, while two small weavings faced each other on the side walls. In front of the monitor, two wooden stools were covered in knitted pieces to allow for comfortable viewing. These fabric works lent a colourful warmth to the white cube of Knulp, softening its edges and inviting closer inspection.
This seemingly sudden turn to textiles raised questions concerning what exactly Thomas was doing here, since the (perhaps clichéd) association of fibre art with the feminine or domestic jarred somewhat with expectations of his more usual media. Was this an ironic comment on the currently fashionable status of textile art, on the contemporary’s fleeting recycling of forms? Was this arm’s-length dabbling in a feminine medium a critique of current attempts at the fairer representation of women artists? Or a comment on the sense of exclusion such attempts may engender in white, middle-class, cisgender men?
Answers to these questions lay within the works’ credits: where Thomas himself had woven the modestly-proportioned hard-edged abstraction—An Orange Work (2017)—on the left-hand wall, the similarly-sized weaving hanging opposite, Untitled, was made by his mother, Jean Thomas, many years earlier. The tie mandala, Untitled (2014-15) was sewn and embroidered by his sister, Barbara Thomas, while the knitted chair covers were made by Thomas’s partner, Suzanne Howard. Rather than represent a dabbling or amateur engagement with feminine artforms, Thomas’s installation was in fact a tribute to the work of these significant women in his life. In situating his own attempt at weaving in equal relationship to the efforts of his mother and sister, his installation questioned the primacy of authorship. While a craft aesthetic may be fashionable within the realm of the contemporary, Thomas’s inclusion here of actual craftworks of very personal significance questions the superior or special status frequently attributed to art objects.
The video work Simple Math explained the installation further, connecting its elements and revealing the events and impulses informing it. Primarily, this work documented a road trip undertaken by Thomas and his friend, artist Lucy Forsberg, on their return journey from Brisbane to Sydney via the Blue Mountains. Its visuals shifted between descriptively poetic and straight documentary representations of the pair’s relentless highway drive, their road stops and accommodations, their conversations and encounters on the way. Tracks composed by both Thomas’s solo act David Ethix and his project with partner Suzanne Howard, Weekend Immendorf, augmented the emotions that were frequently engendered by the video’s quite personal and everyday scenes.
The significance of this journey’s narrative to the fabric pieces on display lay within its destination: Thomas was travelling to his mother’s house to collect skeins of wool that had been left behind post her recent move to a retirement home. Footage showing Thomas back in his studio in Brisbane, repeatedly hammering nails into a frame to form a loom, intermittently intersected the road trip’s narrative and formed a rhythmic backing track. In a later shot we see Thomas weaving into this frame with his mother’s wool, at the outset of the long and laborious process involved in weaving An Orange Work. These scenes of solitary, repetitive studio activity contrasted markedly with those of the road trip, providing a counterpoint to the narrative’s sense of movement and sociality. Thomas’s familiarity with the process of weaving was here made evident: as he described to Forsberg on their journey, weaving is a technique he learned and practiced as a child, alongside his mother. The very personal story behind Thomas’s trip was made evident here, the viewer becoming aware of the artist’s efforts to retain a closeness to his mother through her work, even as he was losing her to old age.
Simple Math’s deceptively simple format raised complex questions concerning the status of the artwork, the role of the artist, and the notion of art within life. The contrast between the cold audio-visual components and the warmth of the textile works read as an attempt by the artist to combine the contrasting elements of his life: his work and his family, the public and the personal, his persona and his person. The extremities of Thomas’s oeuvre—his interest in music and its hardware, his history with painting, video and visuals, his solo practice and his concern for relationships—seamlessly and logically combined within Simple Math to give a real sense of art as event, relationship or network, or art in everyday life.
David M. Thomas and Barbara Thomas, Simple Math. Installation view Knulp, Sydney, 2017. Courtesy David M. Thomas.