Wild and Cultivated Iron:
Recent Sculpture by Jeff Thomson

GREGORY O'BRIEN

Apparently Michelangelo believed that a well-conceived and executed sculpture should be able to be rolled down a hill without being seriously altered or damaged. If this was a universal test of sculptural accomplishment, Thomson's metal sculptures -bent, scrunched and realigned by the time they reached the foot of Michelangelo's hill-wouldn't rate too highly. That, however, is their point: these artworks set out to record rather than cover up their passage into the world. They relate to the process they have undergone, the circumstances that formed them and those in which they find themselves. A Thomson sculpture which has rolled down a hillside would henceforth bear something of that stretch of hill.

After they have left the studio, these works suffer as most sculptures do: they get bashed, sleeves get caught on them, birds will land, livestock will collide with them. Not only have Thomson's productions had bread baked in them and images from art history and Watties packaging printed on them, they have received parking tickets, been stolen or graffittied, corroded by acid rain; they have fallen over and people have fallen over them.

JEFF THOMSON Gumboot 2000
Corrugated iron, 3400 x 5500 x 1800 mm.
(Commissioned by Gumboot Country Promotions, Taihape)
(Photograph: Leigh Mitchell-Anyon)

Like a car body or letterbox, the sculpture needs to absorb the unexpected-its malleability is its strength. Taking pride in its dents and irregularities, its twists and distortions, Thomson's work carries its history with it-the lines of rough soldering, acetylene torch burn-marks, all the rivets, joints and abutted edges. Rough in some respects, exact in others, these sculptures revel in their inconclusive, 'unfinished' state.

Much to their credit, the artworks are able to absorb the impact of ideas as well as things. Their homely, hospitable accommodation of post-modernism, in its many guises, is a case in point. Also the way they playfully register art from the Western canon. (Thomson's ongoing series of farmyard animals is an intriguing conversation with Picasso's sculptural menagerie.) Recently the sculptures have explored items from New Zealand cultural history, drawing on a wide array of motifs from gumboot to Maori kete to colonial view of Milford Sound.

JEFF THOMSON Curtains 1994
Corrugated iron,
2500 x 3500 mm. approximately

Not only are Thomson's 'Lace' works of the early 1990s an exploration of the koru motif, they comment on the use of drapery in the European sculptural tradition; they are a retort to the smooth marble 'blankets' that have been draped across countless Pietas or are left dangling from Bernini's St Teresa. In these recent works the illusionistic folds are recast in corrugated iron and set adrift in shallow modernist-inclined space. The virtuosic drapes so beloved of the Renaissance become corrugations of burnt, perforated and rusting metal. Thomson's works thrive in the paradoxical visual and metaphorical environment of their own making.

The artworks are characterised by a restless questioning of sculpture's Grand Tradition and a mischievous delight in undermining much that the sculptor does indeed hold dear. There are frequent gestures to influences as diverse as Duchamp and Michelangelo. (I can't help but see Thomson's recent fixation with roofing and rooftops as, literally, an antipodean inversion of the Sistine Chapel ceiling in which the rows of biblical figures have been replaced with lead-head nails.)

If these are refined works, it is a refinement of essence and focus rather than surface. Work this obsessed with the whole business of construction and demolition demands that its materials be perforated, burnt, busted, bashed and warped-procedures more often associated with home maintenance, car repairs and, for that matter, vandalism than with Fine Art. These unapologetically 'worldly' works have more in common with the garden shed than with marble statuary. Their relationship to the 'real world' is always close: the artist's HQ Holden still needs to pass a Warrant Of Fitness.

JEFF THOMSON HQ Holden Stationwagon 1991-92
Corrugated iron & car body,
(Collection of Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington)

Jeff Thomson has turned the incessant materiality of sculpture to its own advantage. While Filarete, in his Treatise on Architecture (c.1461-64), bemoaned the fact that 'no matter how good a sculpture is, it always appears to be the material it is', Thomson revels in his material's refusal to be anything but what it is. Even in seemingly accurate figurative works - those dogs and cows that seem, with age, to accrue their own personalities - the iron is never disguised or obscured. As Mark Amery writes:

What makes Thomson's work truly distinctive however isn't simply his material, but the fact that his material is also often his subject . . . . While Thomson explores the physical possibilities of the material he uses, both in the abstract and in terms of representation, roofing material and the domestic building and its environment have also thematically become a field of inquiry.1

If the Renaissance gave rise to the notion of the sculptor as worker, these artworks present him as plumber, builder, wrecker and roofing specialist. Thomson is very much the self-styled artist-tradesman, a 'traveller' and an adaptable man. The trail of sculptures that he leaves behind form a narrative of his progress. The chief emblem of all this journeying would have to be the corrugated iron HQ Holden which Thomson drove around New Zealand and Australia before it was finally parked at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, where its radio aerial bent into the shape of Australia is a subtly subversive presence in the nationalistic environment.

The 'lived-in' Holden stationwagon is certainly a work that connects with a few generations of New Zealand males-and, possibly, females-who have slept in cars. This roadworthy corrugated iron vehicle embodies the widespread (but seldom explored) notion of the car not only as mode of transport and statement of identity but as shelter. In this case, and elsewhere, Thomson's work provides a subversive commentary on ideas of the masculine, and machismo as embodied by surfie, petrol-head and other New Zealand male sub-cultures.

Increasingly, Jeff Thomson has worked on the cusp between painting and sculpture, between two and three dimensions. He has not only printed images, diagrams and texts onto iron and steel, he has recast classic instances of New Zealand painting on strips and chunks of guttering.

JEFF THOMSON Milford Sound 1999
Steel and lead, 500 x 1200 mm.

Milford Sound (1999) plays off ideas of Nature and Shelter, of the enlightened 'air' of the nineteenth-century Romantic impulse and the wide-open spaces which necessitate the tracts of roofing material and lengths of guttering which make life not only pleasant but possible. Made of steel and lead roofing fragments, Milford Sound features printed details from John Buchanan's Milford Sound, looking North-West from Freshwater Basin (1863) and from an earlier anonymous watercolour, H.M.S. Acheron in Milford Sound (1851). The artwork is a conversation between practical and romantic, between dream and reality; it plays off the pragmatic and the sublime, the human-made ceiling and the celestial one, present-day technology and the historical record. The work also suggests that colonial New Zealanders have used images of the idealised landscape as a shelter from harsher realities: the idea of the untrammelled arcadia is our roofing, our 'necessary protection', keeping at bay the real New Zealand environment.

JEFF THOMSON Bull 1998
Corrugated iron,
1200 x 2.3m x 800 mm.
(Private collection, Waitoki)
(Photograph: Rory Thomson)

Thomson's sculptures tend to be homely and personable-qualities that hardly characterise sculptural practise in the present era. As an artist, he isn't all that interested in summoning ghosts from his corrugated metal, of exploring its Gothic potential as Australian artist Victor Meertens certainly did in his tortured corrugated iron sculptures of the late 1980s (structures that evoked devastated buildings and the frameworks of crashed World War Two bombers). Alongside the warmth and affection that characterise his productions, Thomson often strikes an existential or elegaic note reminiscent of Janet Frame or of Allen Curnow's great early poem, 'Wild Iron':

Thoughts go wild, wild with the sound
Of iron on the old shed swinging, clanging:
Go dark, go heavy, go wild, go round . . .

While Jeff Thomson made his name as a recycler of old chunks of roofing iron, more and more he has worked with freshly moulded corrugated steel, churned out of his four curling machines, sited in New Zealand, Australia, Holland and Germany. (Interestingly, another corrugated iron artist, Ralph Hotere, also began using weathered metal wrenched from roof and fence and has gone on to explore the material in its pristine form, fresh from the factory.)

JEFF THOMSON Bread
Installation from Bowen Galleries 1997
(Photgraph: Stephen A'Court)

Thomson's most radical works of recent years involve the printing of patterns and imagery on segments of roofing materials which are then installed on actual buildings. In these works, the functional roofing of a house becomes a decorative adventure: a myriad of images from historical sources glare up into the broad sky of the present. In Classic Roof (2000) Greek and Roman deities are stamped on the roof of a Wanganui house. In Cow shed, moulded lead-head nails litter a corrugated roof like fossils or flotsam at low tide. These works play off the utilitarian and the decorative, the necessary and the spurious. Their overlaying of decorative patterns-drawing on contemporary as well as ancient sources-is reminiscent of Rauschenberg or Warhol, although it states an even more passionate allegiance to the Forest and Bird Society-who are probably responsible for much of the iconography- and various technical and construction manuals. In an ideal world these roofing works would be gathered en masse in densely populated hillside suburbs like Mount Victoria, in Wellington, or Freeman's Bay, Auckland. Houses, like mountains, are landmarks and an important means of orientation as well as shelter. Here we have some purposefully disorientating home-modifications which keep the idea of home inventive, elusive and alive.

JEFF THOMSON Cow shed - detail 2000
Corrugated iron & leadhead nails,
(Collection of Di Handley, Nukumanu)

For any artist the way to have some effect on the national character is not by hitching his or her cart to an overseas model nor by reiterating the accepted self-image, but by going inside the visual and psychological environment and turning it inside out. That is what Jeff Thomson has done: he has taken twentieth-century New Zealand, with its pot-holes and fence-posts, its corner stores and herring-bone cowsheds, and reconstructed it-without, however, fixing it in one place. His art traverses the old New Zealand and the new New Zealand. While some of these works are often seen to reflect the National Character, that isn't their point. You deal with National Identity by not

JEFF THOMSON Kete 1995
Screen printed corrugated iron, 370 x 420 x 130 mm.
(Private collection, Wanganui)
JEFF THOMSON Lead Head Nails 2000
Lead & galvanised steel nails, various dimensions
(Photograph: Leigh Mitchell Anyon)

consciously dealing with it. True character finds its own shape-which is why institutional attempts at saying who we as a people are become so problematic and unsatisfying. While the agents of a state-sanctioned national identity might easily and enthusiastically accommodate the corrugated iron letter-boxes, moas and Thomson's version of the inter-island ferry Arahura, they would, I suspect, stare blankly at the Brancusi-esque columns, penguins and rhinoceroses which are just as integral a part of Jeff Thomson's encyclopedic referencing of the world.

JEFF THOMSON Hens/Roosters 1999
Screen printed and corrugated iron, various sizes

National Identity isn't finished, complete or self-contained any more than the Western tradition of sculpture is. They are both in a state of permanent construction and, for that matter, demolition. Both, however, present issues that are relevant to the contemporary New Zealand sculptor in his studio. In this case the sculptor is also a workman in his workshop, a roofing contractor tending an expanse of corrugated iron. And that would be as good a place as any to leave Jeff Thomson: up on his rooftop under a perfect blue sky. While Michelangelo might have insisted we stare skywards towards the gods, Thomson's roof-works themselves face skywards: they are something for the gods to look down on.

Jeff Thomson at work on Roof 2000

1. Mark Amery, 'Artist on the Roof' in Jeff Thomson, Bowen Galleries, Wellington 2000, p. 7.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 100 Spring 2001