A man of symbols

CONTEMPLATIVE:  Robert Thompson stands with works from his exhibition at designroom.
CONTEMPLATIVE: Robert Thompson stands with works from his exhibition at designroom.

These days Robert Thompson paints small objects on small pieces of paper. He has dozens of them, each takes days to contemplate and complete. Between the Spaces, currently showing at designroom, is a series of works depicting seagulls, people, faces, shapes and symbols. They float on the page, giving the viewer hints, signals to allow individual interpretation.

"Art is what happens between the spaces and yet gives meaning to the spaces," says Thompson. "People want the whole picture, I'm feeding my own imagination and I want the viewer to come to the painting in the same way that I do."

Years ago he painted very differently.

Large expressionist oils on acrylic works, he would throw his body at the work, arms stretching out to express the passion of his brushstrokes.

In the mid 80s Thompson stopped painting large gestural works to study theology. He graduated with a bachelor of Theology, Hons in 1990.

Then began a PHD exploring the relationship between spirituality and art, but this ultimately led back into art. Thompson began a series of self-portraits. Then following some major life-changing events, he eventually ended up living on a yacht, sailing the Pacific, namely up the east coast of Australia.

While on the yacht Thompson had to scale down his drawings, A3 replaced huge scale works of over 2 metres, he did hundreds of them, in a time he refers to as "reinventing myself'."

Upon returning to New Zealand in 2007, Thompson was working with a limited palette of colours from a box of 12 watercolours, usually favouring 8 colours. The challenge was simplicity.

"In the mind I have expansive ideas, but on the wall they are quite small," he says. "The shapes in my paintings link more to feelings than objects, I think I'm deliberately ambiguous about them, different people will take a different meaning."

Today, he calls himself a "mark maker coming out of expressionism." He is more inward, more self-contained and interested in addressing people's expectations.

"Some things have been deliberately left out in order to draw attention to something else," says Thompson. " My paintings start and finish as meditations in the sense that my images emerge from the end of a brush."

Thompson's work starts out private and personal, then by making them public they have an inherent connection with the viewer's life experiences. His work also takes time to do, with the intention that the viewer will also spend time in contemplation when looking at his work.

"They evolve, there's quite a lot of looking," he says. "It takes a couple of weeks, often I have more than one on the go."

Thompson invites the viewer to look at them as pages to be read, as visual poems.

"It may be a slow release process but I hope my paintings do invite people to come back to them again and again for a "text" to reveal itself.

Between the Spaces, Robert Thompson, designroom, 14 Nile St, Nelson, to April 24.