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One of British artist Paul Thomas’s drawings in his Odyssey series, part of a show of his and Rebecca Fortnum’s work at the June Fitzpatrick Gallery, shows the god Poseidon hunched over the sea, his trident stirring up a stormy froth and another round of detour and delay for Odysseus. The court in Ithaca imagines him long since lost. All but Penelope, who bides her time weaving by day and then unweaving by night the tapestry whose completion would spell the symbolic break of her fidelity to Odysseus, and their son Telemachus, who tries to stave off the rat pack of rabid suitors and their libidinous designs.
Athena persuades Telemachus to go out in search of his father, whom he now knows is alive; before he departs there is a feast in his honor. In quasi-Shakespearean tradition, all of the women in Thomas’s drawing of this scene are men in drag. One burly debutante straight out of Otto Dix, stubble on her ample chins, bats her pouting lashes as flies swarm around her and her pert and recently shaven breasts. A couple of other unshaven society lovelies linger behind the food table and its heaping display of shellfish, dripping its rank broth from the top-tier to the flooding platter beneath.
At right foreground we find young Telemachus, with a quiver over his shoulder and shaggy Caesar cut, looking like a Caravaggio boy in post-pubescent years. Interleaved with Telemachus’s hairy forearms — the right one bearing the tattooed letters "TELE," in the semi-Greek script of a Manhattan deli coffee cup — are the shadowy sinews of the writer who would challenge Homer’s version of this very story with his own updated experimental version, set in 20th century Dublin. With his snappy black hat and smart circular spectacles, thin dapper mustache and mild wince, the man giving Telemachus a standing spoon is the unmistakable James Joyce. And the image of Joyce that Thomas makes use of here is one of the most memorable images of him, the one that graces the cover of Richard Ellmann’s masterful biography James Joyce.
The German artist Joseph Beuys, an avid Joyce fan, got hold of that very book in 1971 and marked it up with notes. He noted two quotes by page number inside the book’s cover. The first, a line commenting on Joyce’s young artist and his estimation of what the world of art opens up for him, was: "But Stephen’s esthetic notions are not renunciant; he becomes an artist because art opens to him ‘the fair courts of Life’ which priest and king were trying to keep locked."
The second passage concerned Joyce’s own wrestling with the difficulties of making art that draws so directly from one’s life: "In later life Joyce, in trying to explain to his friend Louis Gillet the special difficulties of the autobiographical novelist, said, ‘When your work and life make one, when they are interwoven in the same fabric . . .’ and then hesitated as if overcome by the hardship of his ‘sedentary trade.’ "
Both points seem to have been digested by Thomas in his reflections on his Odyssey series when he writes of this particular drawing — "Joyce Joins Telemachus at the Feast" — that "The journey will make a man of him and, whatever the fate of his father, he will return with a greater strength and understanding . . . Joyce’s reworking of the story into his novel Ulysses shares a more contemporary rite of passage, that records the needs of all young men."
How to square Thomas’s work, and the mythologies that it grapples with — both the great Greek epic and the solitary figure of the artist suffering for greatness — with Rebecca Fortnum’s drawings, which share the gallery?
In her "Rococo VI," part of a series that, in her words, "explores accusations of decorativeness; the ‘crime’ of ornament and the uncanny nature of symmetry," a seemingly sedate scene of pattern and balance unfolds upon inspection into a barely-holding scenario in which a powerful set of forces tangle with and bear upon one another on the plane of the image itself.
The weave of fine forms hovers at the edge of symmetry inside a frame in which nothing quite balances against its opposing form, and yet everything coheres in an elastic shudder. All is askew enough to be palpably plastic. The departures from perfect symmetry become elaborations, perhaps perfections upon it. They signify a threshold point in this scenario where, instead of giving in to the congealing force of symmetry, any number of future phases could become possible.
They enact a temporary taming of a liquid medium — and of Poseidon’s stirrings.
Chris Thompson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Issue Date: October 7 - 13, 2005
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