Geoff Thornley’s painting practice is unquestionably one of the most considered and refined in New Zealand. Few painters have pursued abstraction so resolutely, resisting the fashion for appropriation and pastiche – the convenient cultural and stylistic diversions so often favoured by commentators. His clarity and conviction serve to guide discussions about his work back to painting itself and to its lineage.
In looking back over almost fifty years there are deep aesthetic strata connecting his painting, from the mid-seventies when Thornley represented New Zealand at the São Paulo Biennale through to his newest Anterior & History works. There is a composed lyricism and quiet material finesse across most all of his series, and certainly in the newest paintings there is a more open expression of gesture and material re-emerging that harks back to his early paintings.
In his exhibition opening at Fox Jensen McCrory in November there is a softer organicism to the colour that opens the face of the paintings, allowing us to see into and through the structure he has built. It is always the case with Thornley that this interior framework emerges slowly. Shifts in light invite the anatomy of the painting to be partially exposed in a slow, demure dance that both reveals and obscures simultaneously. This courtship between viewer and object is measured by the customary restraint and discipline that characterise Thornley’s painting. He seems determined to remind us that making a painting is about an incremental building of form and presence – about giving body to colour and light, as only painting can do. However this reciprocation takes time and commitment in the viewing as it does in the making.
As is always the case with Thornley there are a multitude of considerations that are critical to the paintings eventual form. His final re-positioning of the canvas on its completed stretcher, the relationship between margin and edge, the fineness of the stretcher face and the depth of the support. These adjustments feel critical to our apprehension and perception of the work and for Thornley they acknowledge another aspect about making that marries function and ceremony.
Geoff Thornley’s Devonport studio approaches a Shaker-like modesty but there is nothing self-conscious about it. The wooden stairs to the first-floor painting space are worn, the timber floor is cleaner than one might imagine, the two chairs are effective but not cosy. However any sense of austerity subsides the second you see his painting. For though the studio is organised so as to allow for thinking and making, the paintings are where he locates his feelings and intuitions. Spend just a few minutes with them and time and vision slow allowing for, or more accurately facilitating, an overdue sensitivity in us.
Andrew Jensen 2019