Essay published on the occasion of the Exhibition:
For Don.
What’s Explicit – Why Explicit,
At the Brooker Gallery, Wellington. August-September, 1995.

Introducing Geoff Thornley’s work in this exhibition, I’m going to make no attempt to intellectualise: that’s the artist’s prerogative. Speaking to Thornley, it is as if he is speaking from within the work, translating his ideas and visual elements into language. As Viewer, I hear him, but as an outsider it’s the internal harmony, the music of the abstract that seduces me.

The most seductive quality of this work for me is its existence as an ‘other’, an independent organism whose order pays no reference to the outside. The quiet unified interior provides an alternative accord.

Minimalism, the modernist movement Thornley has aligned himself with, becomes more attractive the more the realms of commerce and art attempt to bait us with an overload of visuals and information. The world becomes cluttered with explicit, clear statements and explanations. The art of flirtation, artistic foreplay, becomes lost.

Thornley’s work gets the juices going because meaning is implicit. Built up layer by layer, textures and colours change subtlely as he works. Meaning can only be found by entering the work. Thornley labours to provide internal drama, entrances and exits for his audience.

The works in this show have been divided into two parts. The ‘Cypher’ works represent Thornley at his most reductive, large, light and minimal. A summation of his earlier development with the ‘construction’ works in the 80s, there is still the search for the ideal.

The architectural planes and lines adhere strongly to the reformist attitudes of minimalism. The heavy fluted raised serration running across the works is defined, isolated and sets hard boundaries. The viewer is boxed out, the work boxed in, with a formal rigidity, a concreteness, that we move towards but cannot penetrate. The ‘Cypher’ works resemble doors we cannot open.

Thornley’s new work represents a profound change – to outside of the canons of minimalism. Thornley is finding himself painting against the forms of classical abstraction that had hereto remained sacred. He speaks of the process as one of internal conflict, of struggling to understand, as he worked, why the colours were getting darker and deeper, rather than staying like flat architectural planes. Why curves, concave and convex, were starting to appear. How he tried to force his work down light passages but then found them going in a darker direction.

Thornley now sees modernist movements like minimalism as areas that are closed off. He has taken on board those principles in his own work but sees his continuation as pushing past those boundaries.

The work is moving back towards the self, the emotive. He has started adding subjective elements into his work that disturb and criticize his own minimalist structures. The concreteness of structure and formal tensions are being broken and dismantled by a new fluidity, a lyricism.

The ogee, the repetitive curve that passes through these new works, moving you across the rich surface and interacting with the harder formal lines and planes, is the most extreme change. Unlike the serrations found in the ‘Cypher’ works, the ogee lines are assimilated within the surface.

That surface provides a warmer, richer and deeper immersion for the viewer. There is an emotional engagement that draws you in, and absorbency that is denied you in the Mondrian tradition of modernism. Thornley is breaking the rules he once worked by. The requirement for verticals, horizontals, flat planes as absolutes has been broken with.

Thornley has striven to find a new unity, one in which the duality of subjective and objective, organic and conceptual, works outside the ‘classical’ ideal. The paintings still have an organic independence – they speak for nothing but themselves. The ogee line, like the Cypher serration, is a formal device with no meaning outside of the dance within the work.

Thornley is also still concerned foremost with how the eye takes it all in, Now however, rather than the work allowing you to keep your distance and take in each part, your experience is more involved, the parts more blended. You are taken into the depths, succumb to its seduction, rather than holding back and analysing the formal devices with your analytical hat on.

Mark Amery