Barry Thompson

Fistful of blood and feathers

3 June  to 9 July 2016

The focus of Barry Thompson’s work has, for several years, been the place where he grew up – an area of Essex between Dagenham and Romford. He depicts places that were of importance during childhood and adolescence and that continue to resonate as an adult, now evoking ideas about loss, memory, pleasure, failure, and fantasy. 

Thompson has produced two new groups of works for PEER. In the first gallery are a number of very small, postcard-sized paintings – primarily landscapes, pastoral scenes of blossoming hawthorns, a path through a wooded lane, or pastoral expanse dotted with trees bedazzled by sunlight.

In the adjacent gallery, small, acutely observed and exquisitely executed drawings depict a seemingly disparate range of subjects. Images of First World War soldiers, wild flowers, overgrown and graffitied walls, and glimpses of semi-clad women in classic soft porn poses strangely coalesce as a group. Thompson treats his subjects as vignettes that sit squarely in the centre of a large sheet of paper surrounded by a sea of pristine white. This produces a kind of intensity of vision as if encountered in vivid dreams, or a profoundly recalled memory. Occasionally the image has migrated to the very edge of the sheet, seemingly about to slip off into another, half-remembered world. Perhaps the landscapes are the mise-en-scene for these more detailed graphic works – the places in which the dreams and memories are enacted. Thompson has spoken of them as places of encounter, where his sexual, philosophical or psychedelic awakenings have occurred. 

The images of the soldiers are of particular significance for Thompson in the recent body of work. Researching local history led him to a First World War photo album in the Imperial War Museum filled with snaps taken by a lieutenant from the Artist Rifles. This regiment included poets such as Edward Thomas and Wilfred Owen, and painters like Paul Nash. Troops of young men, whose civilian pursuits were motivated by the power of imagination and creativity, had been trained to fight and destroy in the very woods and fields of Thompson’s youth.

This inherent paradox is particularly compelling for Thompson, and his titling of the work offers clues to a more complex understanding. Sturnus vulgaris (2015), Hirundo rustica (2016) or Vanellus vanellus (2016) are all Latin names for birds that were once commonplace in the British Isles – starling, barn swallow, and lapwing – but their populations have declined sharply in recent decades. Latin, a dead language often used for memorialisation and solemnity, is also the language used for the title of the most famous First World War poem by Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est, (it is sweet and honourable), which Thompson, like everybody, studied at school. It is not insignificant in this context that this line in the poem continues …pro patria mori (to die for your country).

Three of the soldiers have a X above their heads, which would have been added by hand after the image was first printed, and which Thompson faithfully illustrates. The ambiguity of this mark is compelling, symbolising both extermination and resurrection while also, unintentionally, having the appearance of a bird in flight. 

Acme Residency & Awards Programme – Thompson was the sixth recipient of the Jessica Wilkes Award, which provided a major opportunity, funded and managed by Acme Studios to the value of £10,000, for an Acme tenant to develop their practice at a key point in their career. Ingrid Swenson took part in the award selection process and worked closely with Thompson towards this solo show, which received additional support from Acme. For more information visit Acme Studio's website. 

Barry Thompson lives and works in London. He holds an MA from the Royal College of Art and a BA from University of East London. He has had solo shows with Rachmaninoff’s Smith/Arnatt, London in 2006, 2007, 2009 and 2013. Previous group shows include There is a place…, New Art Gallery, Walsall and Hope & Despair, Cell Project Space, London.

Artist’s publication – To accompany the exhibition PEER has produced a free 16 page artist’s booklet with a text and images by Barry Thompson.

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