Record Type
Date Born/Est
Place Of Birth
Auckland/North Island/New Zealand
Biographical Display
Elizabeth THOMSON - Solo Exhibitions at Mark Hutchins Gallery

Relativity and the Fourth Dimension
16 October - 10 November 2007

15 August - 9 September 2006

13 September - 7 October 2005
Love Me Tender
16 November - 11 December 2004

And it’s in this very territory in which Wellington artist Elizabeth Thomson plays with our perceptions. Her work often turns on what is felt when we’re caught in the spaces between certainties in our view of the world. As John Berger is quoted as saying in a wall panel in the excellent current survey of Thomson’s work at City Gallery, MY HI-FI MY SCI-FI: “perspective is not a science but a hope”.

Thomson’s work provides a fine dance between art and nature. It plays seductively and intelligently with different traditions and concepts of the picturesque. To visit a Thomson exhibition is to be both wowed by sculptural ambition and entangled in mysteries at the heart of all cultural construction.

On a quick look you may be charmed by the decorative use of cast leaf and flower and the innovative use of different materials to create unique effects. Or you might be spooked by the grotesque use of microscopic details from insects. In the best work however I think you’re eventually caught in the disorientating space between the decorative and grotesque. You feel the tension in the movement between things –second and third dimensions, distance close and far, art and nature, feather and claw. We’re seduced by beauty and then left dangling in the floating, quivering spaces between points of reference.

There are works here that in both inspiration from Thomson’s own experience or where they pitch us remind of the disorientation of the desert traveller, the aviator, or the mountain climber – those people in the thick of things for whom perspective is lost.

Emphasised by the reference to ‘Sci-Fi’ in the exhibition title, and in prints from the late 1980s that pitch human figures traversing microscopic landscapes, they’re sometimes the kind of dream fantasy worlds we enter when we lose contact with our coordinates and our senses are heightened.

Edmund Burke considered typical of beauty the qualities of variety, smallness and smoothness. You can’t imagine him being impressed by Thomson’s extensive use of the long jagged lancewood leaf. Burke argued that the dark and fearful could be beautiful - but only when we have enough distance from it to be detached. Thomson breaks this distance, forcing us to engage with the movement between positions in the troubled surreal space between detachment and attachment, the conscious and the unconscious.

New work in this exhibition provide supreme examples of her art at full mature power. Installation ‘Flight Path’ covers an entire wall with 3000 zinc leaves, they stand to attention like sentries in rows, and you quickly become consumed with the complexity of differing vanishing points. Inspired by seeing landscape from the air, an array of references are triggered here - from the cultivated garden ideas of the likes of Shenstone to the perspective tricks of the Renaissance artists. All are artfully fooled with.

Things are equally giddy on the next wall in 2004’s ‘Snake River’ with the swooping curl of a line of leaves. Reminiscent of extravagant scrollwork, wonder is tempered here by the slithery bite that comes with the work’s unsettling play with our perspective.

"Manakau Heads", 1990

The rhythm of forms in works like this become a kind of vibrating musical notation. Conversely, pieces like ‘Botanical Icons’ and the installation in the foyer ‘Casa Pintoresca’ fail to move me because they lack this kind of tremulous tension. For me they’re too safely fixed in the decorative.

The best work aspires to a tension between order and chaos familiar from music, existing in that sensual space between dimensions where movement sets things a tremor. The forms don’t so much resemble notes of staves as the pulsing waves of the record of music actually being played (see ‘Sonic Sisters’ installed in the National Library foyer for the exhibition’s duration).

But equally it’s a quivering and hovering that comes in our experience of nature, be it a breath of wind on a leaf or water. That experience is one of not being able to hold all in one field of view. Thomson’s work is often about how we look.

This survey demonstrates the singular boldness and inventiveness with which Thomson has explored sculpture’s vital potential. Looking at this exhibition also brings back echoes of the work of Bridget Riley and Rosalie Gascoigne in surveys in this same gallery space in recent years. In relating work created over a twenty-year period MY HI-FI MY SCI-FI allows us to consider how Thomson has continually worked over fertile ground and works at an equally sophisticated level as these artists.

This survey provides ample evidence of why Thomson is long due being considered one of this country’s leading sculptors. Just as her work explores the space between things, like other great singular artists it has always been easy for her to fall just beyond attention.

The City Gallery show also demonstrates an artist at full strength. If you like MY HI-FI SCI-FI there’s Mondo Tondo to look forward to, an exhibition of new work at her Wellington gallerist, Mark Hutchins Gallery in Willis Street from August 15.


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