Can paintings talk to each other? Why not? Paintings, much like people, are a kind of social force. Sharing the same space, they whisper, shout, laugh, cry, or scream at each other, much like people do. In Conversation at the Woodstock Art Gallery pairs two painters, Ron Shuebrook and Frances Thomas, and lets their paintings talk it out. Of the twenty-four works on show, there are allusions to the titans of Abstract Expressionism, a reckoning with material, and speculations on everyday life. But the exhibition is, in fact, the product of two conversations: the first, curator Mary Reid’s decades-long running dialogue with Shuebrook and Thomas; the second, the articulation of divergent ideas and approaches to abstraction.
Thomas’s work emerges from intuition and her discontentment with the “fixed image” is palpable.1 She coaxes acrylic in ways that are sometimes emphatic, other times melodic. The variety is refreshing. Her paintings are wildly spontaneous, seriously present, and dig into the marrow of the passing moment. The verve of her brushstrokes reveal a train of thought, mood, or state of being. Like other abstractionists impacted by the very here-and-now, her hand is a record of everyday life and that experience is imprinted on the paintings we encounter.
Thomas’s electric abandon and Shuebrook’s cagey deliberation keep the space in equilibrium. Unlike Thomas, it isn’t uncommon for Shuebrook to take a year or more to complete a painting. Each whit of paint is added calculatingly to test the prickly relationship between issues like figure and ground. Each of his patterns or grids react to the shape of the canvas and emphasise the painting’s inherent materiality. The presence of a rectangle, say, can be entirely self-referential in that it speaks to the rectangular-ness of the painting itself. For Shuebrook, ruminating about a composition shares equal footing with the actual application of form, colour, and line.
While their approaches certainly differ, Thomas and Shuebrook are banded together in their enthusiasm for forging new visual realities. What’s compelling is how distinct, sometimes contradictory, aesthetic values and image philosophies find common ground under the umbrella of abstraction. Take, for example, Thomas’s expansive Orange Portal (2020). With its peachy distant sky, it swiftly implies a dusk landscape. Yet just as quickly, its vertical brushstrokes shatter the implication and dissolve the suggestion entirely. Then a muddy portrait surfaces flanked by green, red, yellow, and purple marks. In spite of all this, off to the right, a small orange portal stands alone. This signature motif is repeated elsewhere; namely in Mystic (2020) where wet acrylic is exerted vertically in purposeful brushstrokes. At the point of contact with the panel, Thomas rips the paint away to fold it in with the rest, leaving the original, pure chroma impression below.
The tempestuous movement in Mystic keeps the eye questioning and ever-unsettled. And the painting is further destabilised by the appearance of a portal or doorway at its centre. Willem de Kooning did this, too, when he conceived the monumental Door to the River (1960). Attacking the surface with housepainter’s brushes, his gestures intimate an aperture to step through, like an enigmatic passage into a mysterious void. For Thomas, it isn’t clear where her portals lead to. Nor do they have to, really. But her transcendent spatial dimensions are a novel way of solving that nagging fixed image problem. Moreover, in her essay for the exhibition catalogue, Emily McGibbon writes that “What Thomas fears most is confinement.”2 If that’s true, it seems that this fear is assuaged by painting ways out, figuratively, through a series of openings or gateways that lead into the unknown.
On the other hand, Shuebrook’s signature motif, the monkey-rope, features prominently in the exhibition. Borrowed from Herman Melville’s classic Moby Dick, the monkey-rope traditionally binds sailors together when whaling – one secured to the ship, the other dangling precariously atop a thrashing harpooned whale. In short, it’s a device that either saves both lives or ensures two deaths. There’s not much compromise. Metaphorically, at least, the monkey-rope points to the congruence and connectivity between people and places. In Aspotogan Monkey-rope (2013), for instance, Shuebrook links the small Nova Scotia fishing village of Aspotogan, not a 10-minute drive from his studio, to his central motif. How come? Perhaps like Ishmael and Queequeg on the sea, the rope harnesses Shuebrook to the people, fisheries, and land that inspire and sustain him. It’s an ode of reciprocity and respect.
Elsewhere, in several of Shuebrook’s big paintings, the monkey-rope makes way for the iconic motifs of Ab Ex. The largest of these, Requiem (for Rudy), serves as a poignant elegy to a close friend that the artist knew from his early days in the United States military. Formally, however, it’s a pensive amalgamation of Mark Rothko, Piet Mondrian, and Barnett Newman’s compositional concerns – the painting marries the quadrangle structures of Rothko, the asymmetrical red, yellow, and blue grids of Mondrian, and the zippy, illusionary lines of Newman. There’s a strong sense of oscillation caused by placing various tones of yellow paint amongst stark curtains of overlaid black colour. Cool, disciplined brushstrokes opposite determined, more painterly gestures only adds to this effect. I think it’s Shuebrook’s most complete painting in the show, particularly because it’s deeply entangled in the language of modernist abstraction as well as the messiness of being human.
In Conversation demonstrates that art and exhibitions don’t exist in a vacuum; instead, these things often materialise from sustained, meaningful conversations that can stretch over years, decades even. It works for many reasons but perhaps the most important is because, if the artists were too similar in their trajectories, too interchangeable in their approach to painting, one would ultimately disrupt the parity and take precedence over the other. Thankfully that doesn’t happen here. It’s a game of give-and-take, much like any good conversation. So, it might be a paradox, but the resounding differences between Thomas and Shuebrook is what actually makes it tick.
1 Frances Thomas, “Artist Statement,” web (accessed 6 December, 2023).
2 Emily McGibbon, “Call & Response,” in In Conversation: Ron Shuebrook and Frances Thomas, exhibition catalogue (Woodstock and Barrie, ON: Woodstock Art Gallery and MacLaren Art Centre, 2023), 21.
Matthew Ryan Smith, PhD, is the Curator and Head of Collections at Glenhyrst Art Gallery in Brantford, Ontario.
In Conversation: Ron Shuebrook and Francis Thomas is showing at the Woodstock Art Gallery until January 20, 2024.
Images are courtesy of the Woodstock Art Gallery.