David M. Thomas

A party disguised as work or work disguised as a party
David M. Thomas
Boxcopy, Brisbane
7-28 July 2012

One of the reasons David M. Thomas uses his middle initial is to distinguish himself from the Melbourne artist of the same name. This is mostly unimportant; it is just a way to help reduce unnecessary confusion. However, it is also a subtle reminder that our identities, or at least the monikers we attribute to them, can be precarious and easily undermined. Perhaps not by coincidence, this David Thomas often makes art about identity and its mutability over time.

For his recent exhibition at Boxcopy, Thomas revisited his past by creating a fictionalised version of CBD Gallery, a project space Thomas ran in Sydney from 1993 to 2000. At Boxcopy, Thomas built a false floor precisely one hundred and sixty-three centimeters (the height of a prominent Brisbane curator) off the floor. It effectively splits the Brisbane artist-run initiative into two spaces. The upper and lower levels recall the gallery-basement configuration of CBD. A bit like floor seven and a half in Being John Malkovich, the low ceiling height of the lower space means that most gallery visitors have to stoop to enter the show. In homage to the good times spent in the CBD basement, this lower space is designed as a kind of chill-out creative zone. There is musical equipment, an LCD screen cycling through images and videos from Thomas’s studio archive and a functioning record player with classic and punk rock vinyl to select from. The ceiling is lined with hessian and the floor is covered with black and white sea grass matting. It is a cosy den for sitting, listening and speaking easily. With a touch of stoner monumentality, there is also a large painted panel resting on a stack of books about creative icons like Joseph Beuys and The Ramones. The panel reads, ‘the universe is down here’.

Three circular holes are cut into the false floor/ceiling above. With strategically placed stools, they allow visitors to peak into the upper level. Just like the CBD gallery, this level is brightly lit and white walled. There are large vinyl stickers on the floor that loosely gesture towards some kind of timber flooring. This stark upper level is empty aside from an LED sign mounted on one wall. It displays a line of text in ubiquitous red digital typography. The word ‘the’ flashes on and off so that the sign alternately reads, ‘I AM the SHIT’ and ‘I AM SHIT’. It is a humorously dark one-liner that makes explicit the fine line between self-confidence and self-loathing that can sometimes permeate our inner monologues. The question of how we construct and reconstruct our sense of self over time is the primary concern of the exhibition and of Thomas’s practice more generally.

This installation at Boxcopy is, of course, not a scale replica of CBD. It is not even close. Instead, it is a half-remembered, half-invented version of the venue at which Thomas spent many of his formative years making, organising, installing and debating art. It is clearly an important time for Thomas and significant that he should revisit it among a series of recent exhibitions in which he has variously explored intersections between subjectivity and that elusive notion of ‘creativity’. Thomas’s previous exhibitions at the Griffith University Art Gallery (Dream Job, 2010) and Metro Arts (Expanded Portraits, 2011), also posed fundamental but unfashionable questions such as: Who is the artist? Where is the art? What constitutes an exhibition? When is a work complete? Where does the exhibition start and the studio end? In A party disguised as work or work disguised as a party, Thomas uses the now-mythologised CBD as a lens through which to probe these questions and the additional one, when is an exhibition just an excuse for a party? But this is more serious than the relational art Hal Foster derides as ‘Arty Party’.1 The relationship between the lower and upper levels in Thomas’s installation, between the ‘studio’ and the ‘gallery’, becomes metaphoric for the artist’s own mutable construction of self. The question of how and when an artwork transitions from studio to gallery—from the safe, dimly lit, unfettered creative space, to the alienating, bright white ‘nowhere to hide’ space of public presentation—is analogous to how subjectivity manifests. Clearly for Thomas, these processes of emergence and transition are not always straightforward or without difficulty. Importantly, however, by actively acknowledging and engaging with these thresholds, Thomas locates humorous and liberating forms of agency that overcome what can otherwise be creatively and socially debilitating activities.

To help ease the potential anxieties of putting one’s work and, by extension, one’s self on display, for this exhibition Thomas has collaborated with two younger artists, Joseph Breikers and Stephen Russell. Perhaps again not by coincidence, these two artists have experience with their own artist-run spaces (Breikers with Boxcopy and Russell with Accidentally Annie Street Space). While the relationship with Breikers and Russell is ‘collaborative’, Thomas openly admits to paying them for their time. Far from enabling the utopic coming together of equals, this payment, as Karl Marx and his colleagues taught us long ago, necessarily introduces an imbalance in power relations. The younger collaborators are therefore simultaneously interlocutors and labourers, active contributors and subjugated workers. It is a paradox willingly entered into by Thomas and his collaborators as a means of circumventing the often-unpleasant feelings that inevitably emerge from imbalanced group activity (inevitable in this instance because the exhibition is attributed first and foremost to David M. Thomas). Perhaps more importantly, it is also another signal that for Thomas, the making of artworks, exhibitions and subjectivities are convoluted processes that always necessarily involve other, external protagonists. One might as well be upfront about it and pay those protagonists for their contributions.

Further extending the leitmotifs of complicated codependency and tricky nomenclature is Thomas’s band, Eggvein. Performing as part of the exhibition’s closing event, Eggvein allows Thomas (Dave Eggveinian) and fellow artist-collaborators Archie Moore (Magnus O’ Pus), Paul Wrigley (Rand M. Strange) and Geoff Vagg (D. Wight Yokum) to assume punning stage names that hint at the band’s cathartic method in identity transformation. Like any good simultaneously self-respecting and self-deprecating garage-band-art-project, their songs are straightforwardly doleful and anti-social. On vocals, Moore, during performances, sports an oversized black wig complete with matchsticks, Band-Aids and other rank artifacts. Moore often works with text in his own art practice and he is largely responsible for the morose lyrics that underpin Eggvein songs with titles like Suss C—ts, To Never Feel Alive Again and Destroy Your Self. Meanwhile, Thomas (guitar), Wrigley (bass) and Vagg (drums) crash out classic rock progressions in obeisance to seminal rockers like the Cosmic Psychos, Black Sabbath and Alan Vega. Eggvein might not be on 4KQ’s rotation quite yet, but it is clearly an important outlet for these artists’ collective interests in the creative venting of psyches under duress.

As with previous exhibitions, Thomas has used A party disguised as work or work disguised as a party as a way of drawing attention to the multiple creative outputs that make up his practice. This is not just a self-indulgent ‘look at what else I can do’. For Thomas, the multiplicity, mutability and processual aspects of practice are important critical strategies for engaging with his central concerns around the similarly complex operations of subjectivity. Thomas deliberately recoups the activities around art making that are sometimes written out of an artist’s practice. Whether it is being involved in an artist-run initiative, a band, artistic collaborations, or more loosely aligned social groupings, Thomas acknowledges that these peripheral activities are precisely what constitute an engaged and engaging art practice. Our collective focus on formalised exhibitions can sometimes make us forget this.

At one stage during the opening of A party disguised as work or work disguised as a party, I poked my head through one of the circular holes to have another look at the LED sign above. Thomas popped his head through another hole to warn me not to climb up onto the floor. Evidently, the thin false floor is not stable enough to carry an adult’s weight. Trivial as this may be, it is yet another reminder that these thresholds between studio and gallery, between unconscious play and resolved thought, between private and public self, are flimsy at best. It might be easier and less risky to stay beneath the surface watching videos and playing guitar. But every now and then, we must confront our fears to poke our heads through to the other side. Thomas’s exhibition suggests that when we get there, the message is conflicting. Putting ourselves in the public realm, even through the simplest act of communication, fulfills, confirms and gratifies us (‘I AM the SHIT’). However, it can also reinforce our insecurities, doubts, and even repulsions (‘I AM SHIT’). Maybe the best strategy is to follow Thomas’s lead: to take the risk, recognise the paradox, grin, grimace, and then climb back down to play some more records and prepare for the next excursion to the stage above. After all, the lights might be bright upstairs, but ‘the universe is down here’, man.

David M. Thomas, A party disguised as work or work disguised as a party, 2012. Installation view, Boxcopy, Brisbane. Courtesy the artist. 

David M. Thomas, A party disguised as work or work disguised as a party, 2012. Installation view, Boxcopy, Brisbane. Courtesy the artist. 

David M. Thomas, A party disguised as work or work disguised as a party, 2012. Installation view, Boxcopy, Brisbane. Courtesy the artist. 

David M. Thomas, A party disguised as work or work disguised as a party, 2012. Installation view, Boxcopy, Brisbane. Courtesy the artist. 

notes: 

1. Foster, Hal. 2003. ‘Arty Party’, London Review of Books, Vol.25, No.23, 4 December 2003, pp.21-22.