Artificial Light

26.08 – 02.10.2021


We were young, now we are slightly older

When I saw this new body of work I was struck by a feeling I couldn’t name, but felt very clearly. The feeling I had was a kind of sweet sorrow, unfolding in slow motion, coupled with the joy of looking at such balanced and considered paintings.

After a few conversations with Tom about these paintings, and about life in general, I believe I have understood this feeling more fully. It comes from something deeper than the composition of the paintings and their subject matter, and to really fathom it in words, I found I had to pay a visit to the past that Tom and I share.

I’ve known Tom since we were both nineteen. Two boys from the country, thrown together in the overwhelming light of London. I remember us both being simultaneously excited and bewildered by the art school we attended. What were we supposed to do exactly? What were we supposed to think? What was postmodernism? No one had told us modernism had ended! Oh brave new world of critical thought, shrouded in the language of philosophers! Worst of all for us was the question bouncing around the lecture theatres, seminar rooms, and hallways: was painting still relevant?

On this, Tom never had any doubts. He has been, from the start, a card carrying figurative painter, and one that paints from the heart. Not so much a heart worn on the sleeve, but skewered on the end of a brush and drawn over acres of canvas since then, forming an oeuvre with the character of a journal: Intimate, idiosyncratic, contemplative.

But the important anecdote I want to revisit from our time in the university is this: I saw what I think was Tom’s first real breakthrough. He was working on about twenty small paintings all at once, one wall of his studio completely covered in a grid of canvas. The paintings started as a muddy, uncoordinated, mess of gestures. Then one day I walked in to find a choir of attitudes, a concert of fast, fearless figuration. Parts of humans, animals, and objects, came and went, popped up, receded, merged, all in a heady storm of bright colours. It was precocious. A young joyous leap into asserting oneself. Most of all, the paintings announced that they had something important to say, though that thing being said was lost amidst the frenzy.

I still have two of these paintings in my studio. They remind me of that adolescent energy, of our search for the artists we would become while trying to understand the boys we still were. We were young then, and, well, now we are a bit older.

In the intervening years, those events in life we can rely on to shape us, have shaped Tom into the man he is today. Nothing necessarily out of the ordinary for a life lived fully, but between the highest joys, such as the birth of a daughter, and the deepest pains of heartbreak, there is the realisation that life, in all its wonder and beauty, will inevitably include a fair amount of suffering too.

These paintings speak to me of this truth. All the figures are alone. They are thinking, but they are not the heroic thinkers of Rodin. Neither are they lost in the dramatic existential despair of Munch. They are people like you and me, human, and caught in the web of their own thoughts and feelings. We can recognise the state they are in. It is a mulchy state. A moment of fallow feeling that will, hopefully, provide the rich soil in which the future self can bloom, just like the flowers in the vases.

I wanted to remember the boy who asserted he had something to say, but couldn’t say it, because in these new paintings I see a man who has asserted his right to doubt, to express his feelings of pain and uncertainty, with confidence and clarity. What these paintings do, the extra thing I have been winding my way towards, is a thing that art does very well. They take an individual experience, in this case I would say one of emotional pain, and turn that experience into a communal one, something shared with all of us. The magic in this act is that it turns the original experience into its opposite. These paintings are beautiful affirmations of life even in its darker moments, and at the heart of this transformation of lead into gold is a catharsis, because these solitary figures say quite clearly to us: you, we, are not alone.

Jack Burton