Studio visit Thom Puckey, viewed through the image
10-07-2020 Alex de Vries
Thom Puckey (Bexley Heath 1948) is a many-sided artist who made a name for himself in the 1970s with performances and later with sculptures and analog photography. He approaches the making of visual art as a confrontation with existence. “When you read a good book,” he says, “you always feel that the book is also reading you. It is the same with visual art. When you look at an image, you are also viewed by the image. You see who you are. ” What is striking about his recent works is that they also discover an image within themselves.
Kent's Bexley Heath is an upper working class London neighborhood with modest houses. Thom Puckey grew up as the son of an engineer and inventor who encouraged him to research devices and their functions. He had two brothers, the oldest of whom died at the age of 13 after a doctor's misdiagnosis, a traumatic situation that subsequently cast a shadow over the family. After many years, it resulted in tragic consequences for his mother. Puckey: “My history with my mother has left traces of a significant sense of guilt that has sometimes spurred my relationships with others. Somehow I try to balance all this in my life and work, no matter how precarious, between caring for others that is asked of me and looking after myself and my work. ”
That he opted for an art education was inevitable for Thom Puckey. He knew early on that he was no good for anything else. At home he was surrounded by the objects that his father was researching and which he tried himself all sorts of ways. A way of working that he himself has always continued to practice as an artist. “I am not a programmatic artist. I first do something to see what it yields and only then do I reflect on it to determine what I can do with it. In 2002 I created my first marble statue, and in doing so I started to master that profession. In the beginning I left the finishing of the marble to craftsmen, while I made the sculpture in clay myself and executed it in plaster and then had it milled computer-controlled. Now I also control the finish myself and sometimes I only trust that to a handful of other people. The same goes for my analog photos, I do it all myself now. When you take your photos to the lab, you never get what you have in mind. I got that from my father who also photographed and printed himself. ”
Thom Puckey's studio in the former Tetterode building in Amsterdam, where he has lived and worked since 1982, reveals that self-motivation in a surprising way. It is wonderful to see how someone who makes such perfectionist images and photos achieves them with self-invented and constructed facilities. Everything is effectively tied together and moving along the ceiling over wooden rails with pulleys to move light sources. In the center of the room is a recent marble statue that he already showed in spring 2019 to his Antwerp Gallery Annie Gentils that arrived fresh from the marble workshop in Italy. During the exhibition, Puckey discovered that he wanted to do something more with it. He thought the ribs of the female figure were too pronounced and there were more details too, that he is now refining in his studio. The sculpture shows a woman who is bending over on her knees in a stooped position. With a flashlight she shines on a geometric shape - a cone - the reflection of which falls through a lens that she holds in her other hand. Through the lens, the image of the cone is inverted projected on the canvas that falls over the sides and back of the chair. It is a projection in an image, a camera obscura in fact. The woman is naked, emphasizing that it is a private situation; a studious way of observing taking the form of a self-examination. The high-quality marble in which the image is executed makes the image timeless, while the representation of the geometric projection captures form, light and space in a perception of time, its duration, as something transient. Her bent-over position is revealing enough to produce a provocative effect.
When he was fifteen, Thom Puckey received an oil painting set from his father. That was a revelation to him. He had always drawn, but the possibilities that painting entailed for him were a dream come true and it was decisive to go to art school. He started his studies at the Croydon College of Art where he first started painting enthusiastically, but eventually graduated with sound and music art. With that, he applied to the Slade School of Art where he was refused. Thom Puckey: “Not going to Slade was not an option for me. There was no alternative for me. I sat down at the door of the professor's office until he let me in. Finally he said, go ahead, but you have to pay for it yourself. That's how I ended up on Slade, but after a year I was thrown out again because I didn't make visual art, but was busy with sound and music. I then admitted to the Royal College of Art with the drawn scores that I made and which looked very graphic. There I continued my studies and met Dirk Larsen who immediately made a big impression on me. Together we then started Reindeer Werk and that's how my professional practice in art started. ”
Thom Puckey's education was certainly not traditional and craft-based. His education reflected the contemporary developments in the art of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The approach to color, surface and shape studies in the art and design of the Bauhaus tradition, as propagated by Johannes Itten and Josef Albers, largely determined the curriculum. The Fluxus movement and artists such as Joseph Beuys were also important references. He learned all the technical skills he needed for his later work through self-study. Puckey: “The advantage is that I don't like doing the same thing over and over. I quickly get bored when I start repeating myself. That is why I always explore new possibilities. It is not that I keep going back to zero - of course I have learned some things - but I do start over and over again to investigate something else. What I make my own depends on what I cannot yet do and know ... ”
Between 1973 and 1980, Thom Puckey was part of the performance duo Reindeer Werk with the artist of British / Danish descent Dirk Larsen (GB 1951). They described their work as "Behavioral Art". In their presentations they put themselves in a trance, losing control of their actions and moving trembling and shocking through space, emitting sounds, rubbing and scratching, confronting the spectators with behavior that can be described as psychotic . Thom Puckey: “When I visited my mother in the psychiatric institution, I had seen and experienced up close that catatonic behavior, which had so many similarities with what I performed as performance art. As strange as that deviant behavior was, it had something necessary and inescapable. We saw all bums and social outcasts as the saints of our time. My own social discomfort at the time, with a significant speech impediment, also contributed to my research into how out-of-the-ordinary behavior is viewed and experienced. ”
In the international performance circuit of the 1970s, Reindeer Werk was an important representative of an art form that involved the public in a completely different way from the the more normal forms of visual work. Reindeer Werk established a reputation by co-organizing and participating in performance projects in, among others, Warsaw, Hamburg, New York, Arnhem and Amsterdam. Their five day and night project "A Prediction" in De Appel in Amsterdam (1978) was a highlight. They allowed the artwork and its experience to coincide, which removed the distance to the public. Spectators could sleep and eat, play pictures and attend a performance every day. Reindeer Werk also organized "Behavior Workshops" during performance festivals and collaborated intensively with Joseph Beuys during the Theater & Wij Festival In Arnhem, also in 1978, the year that Puckey settled in the Netherlands.
In terms of content, Reindeer Werk's performances are still decisive for understanding the work of Thom Puckey. The pursuit of a different consciousness and a different state of being is an important aspect of his artistry. He approaches light as substance and space. He makes experiences outside of everyday reality visible as inexplicable phenomena that occur during the duration of their manifestation. Both in the use of matter and in a non-material sense, the idea of transformation - the conversion of energy through which form and meaning change - is decisive for the meaning of his work. In his latest photographs, this is reflected in the merging of Christian testimonies of saints and martyrs and contemporary personifications of them, as if those ancient traditions have perished in people today. He combines projections of slides that he made in Italian churches - Puckey also has a house in Tuscan Valdarno - with long shots of female figures, as it were, possessed by the ecclesiastical representation.
Shortly after ending the collaboration with Dirk Larsen, Thom Puckey developed his interest in alchemical and mystical transformation processes in the comprehensive project "Five houses, five cities" (1983). He used five interior spaces to initiate chemical processes with which he effected a metaphysical adaptation of architecture. He used zinc and iron oxide in Maastricht, lead and sulfur in Amsterdam, copper sulphate and brass in Eindhoven, carbon and aluminum in Arnhem and salt and copper in Groningen. The underground spiral fountain with red liquid from 1984 that he made for the Museum Arnhem can be seen as a sculptural outcome of this extensive project.
In the eighties Thom Puckey developed more and more into a sculptor, a field that he had to conquer more or less from scratch and in which he experimented and researched a lot. The interaction between his free work and the images he commissioned shows a similarity in the usually scenographic approach to image construction. His commissioned sculptures have a more prosaic character than his free work that tells less of a story and rather produces a concentrated experience. Both sculptures and photos make various echoes of other spatial or mental dimensions tangible in the here and now.
After his first marble statue from 2002, a succession of sculptures in the same material arose between 2007 and 2011 in which naked women, executed in the most intimate details, are depicted in striking poses with weapons on everyday objects such as mattresses, pillows and furniture. The contrast between the nakedness referring to classical antiquity and the intimidating weaponry on a banal surface is at the same time seductive, shocking and disturbing. These are images that first play an unwanted role in the discussion about the representation of the female nude in the visual arts, but later consciously provocatively. Thom Puckey: “For me, making images of the nude is partly a reference to the way in which sacred figures and gods and goddesses were often depicted in archaic and classical sculpture. That they were naked was completely self-evident, because a god or goddess is simply naked. By asking people from my circle of acquaintances to pose naked for my sculpture, there is another self-evident fact, namely that of the trust between me and the person I ask for the sculpture. They are all women who are active as artists or who have work related to art. In essence, they are different from 'models'. I am not portraying them, but I do represent the bodies truthfully. I can only do this if a certain degree of familiarity has arisen. You can only do it if you treat each other with the utmost respect and follow all protocols. That does not alter the fact that I do address the vulnerability of the body. An image of a woman falling backwards looking for something to hold on to with two guns, legs spread, that is, of course, an image of her surrendering, surrendering to a force that cannot be resisted, such as love. I bring attention to that feeling of being overwhelmed, of surrendering, for example before an operation when anesthesia is given. I am bothered by flat and obvious interpretations, characteristic of the new Puritanism of our time. But on the other hand, this mind-set fascinates me, maybe I recognize my mother in it again. ”
Thom Puckey's work depicts women in circumstances not usually considered. He raises them above all that to compensate for patriarchal thinking by representing women, thinking, acting, investigating, concealing nothing and strong, sometimes intimidating. Even the sculpture "Kim de Weijer as Amputee with 3 Pistols" from 2010 is an image that shows the strength of an independent woman. Powerless as the situation may seem, she is not subject to it.
In interaction with the photographic work that Thom Puckey has made in recent years, the marble sculptures change in content. The weapons disappear from view and make places for cameras and lenses. The analog black and white photos, richly variegated with a wide range of gray tones, consist of long exposure times of up to eight seconds. The women in the photos are illuminated by light sources, catch the light with a lens in their hands and thus create projections that make the intangible visible. The latter simply by using a smoke machine in the room. These photos are manifestations of time and space. The time Puckey uses to illuminate the woman in the picture with a light source is as long as the shutter speed. A lying woman, seen on her back, has a translucent, alabaster appearance because of the moving light source and the shadow effect caused. Thom Puckey: “The photographic image derives its character and meaning from the fact that the feet were photographed eight seconds earlier than the head. I play with the term "duration" as a perception of time as formulated by the philosopher Henri Bergson. By working in this way I evoke an inner image that I strengthen by working with a smoke machine again, so that a mist forms around the body. Due to the long exposure time, that mist gets a sharp material presence. Something that is so immaterial takes shape anyway. ”
In his recent photographs and images, Thom Puckey shows a form of visual ecstasy comparable to the mystical euphoria we know from the lives of the saints. Combining those experiences of the subconscious with an investigative, scientific curiosity about the natural phenomena associated with light, time, form and space creates a confusing interaction between rational and emotional experiences. In some of his latest analog photographs, he uses images of the history of Saint Fina (1238-1253), the patron saint of the Tuscan town of San Gimignano. Fina was a deathly ill girl who chose to lie on a board on which she more or less grew to become a part of. She died when she was 15 after she had already been eaten at by rats and mice. White violets sprouted on the shelf after her death on March 12, the spectators testified. Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-1494) painted frescoes about the life of the saint in a chapel in the Collegiata, the Cathedral of San Gimignano, in 1475. Puckey's photographs combine the projections of slides he made of Fina's plank and the frescoes with the image directly in front of or over it of a naked figure forming a mysterious counterpart of Fina, sometimes very overexposed, sometimes melting away in the projection. The photographic image in a projected slide provides a fusion of time and identity. Thom Puckey is an artist who recaptures what is lost in a different guise. He extracts his personal involvement from the time he spends with his images.