Tom Polo

It may be difficult to name an Australian painter who creates work with as much intellectual rigour as Tom Polo. His practice encourages us to re-learn the act of seeing and to read paintings in a way that goes beyond the surface, into different worlds of performance and introspection. Polo breathes life into an age-old medium often seen as tired and worn down in the pulsating world of contemporary art.

As an academic discipline, the history of art is predominantly taught through the medium of painting. Specifically, it is the development of figurative and representational painting which forms a fundamental part of Western art historical pedagogy. To teach the work of Michelangelo or Manet (one would argue) is to ensure that students understand the social and political value painting once gave to the Western world as its dominant mode of visual expression. The broader rationale, of course, is for students to sharpen skills in visual analysis through discerning the work of artists now deemed as masters.

Yet, beyond the confines of institutionalised learning, figurative painting has for centuries beguiled the imaginations of many others. It is not a stretch to say that the ability of painters to transform canvases into recognisable scenes is a talent that many still hold in high regard. The appeal of this kind of painting perhaps lies in its ability for those with or without a formal art education to approach, point and enter a frame to say, ‘I know what this is’.

Tom Polo’s paintings conjure within us a similar desire to approach, point and identify. His larger works on canvas present twirling lines which silhouette shapes that sail off in many directions. Figures seem to hide behind watery pools of pink or are completely lost amongst rich swathes of electric blue. He lures us in with a foot here or a face there, but as our eyes adjust there is no clean separation between where bodies begin and end.

Polo is well aware of how our eyes are trained and inclined to see. And, while conventional painting has always ensured to lay bare its subject matter, Polo makes us work to understand the canvases he paints. From his paintings curated into the recently concluded ‘The National: New Australian Art’ at The Art Gallery of New South Wales, to those in his April 2019 solo show at Roslyn Oxley9, each presentation feels like a rigorous examination that tests our abilities to see.

When I visit Polo’s studio at Parramatta Artists’ Studios in Rydalmere, I am greeted by a mound of black cinefoil masks, a narrow bench strewn with an assortment of brushes and pigments, and two fluorescent paintings which flank the left and right walls. Between the masks and the bench is a semi-defined path which leads to Polo’s desk at the far end of the studio. I’m a few steps behind as he navigates the trail with ease, but it’s a challenge to dodge the stray masks and protruding paintbrushes, trying not to damage anything while also fixated on the fluorescent yellow painting which leans casually against a wall.

The painting appears as either a work in progress or a colour study in yellow. It’s flat with little contrast, dramatic neon strokes streaking diagonally up and across the canvas. My initial thought is that it’s a peculiar work, one which lacks the typical spirit and jest Polo has come to be known for. When asked about it, he pauses slightly before explaining that it was once a sketch of the artist Joan Ross, a preliminary canvas that was abandoned in favour of the final, I once thought I’d do anything for you (Joan), which was included in the 2018 Archibald Prize. ‘I was trying a few different things which I didn’t end up liking … so I just painted over it,’ he explains. The anticipation and profundity I projected onto this painting vanishes in an instant. My learned desire to read meaning into the benign has betrayed me.

‘I never know when my paintings begin, but I always know when and where they end.’ Once painted and now painted over, this fluorescent canvas signals that Polo is not so much interested in perfecting his works from the outset. Indeed, ‘perfection’ does not sit neatly in the vocabulary one would use to describe his works. His canvases are at first glance messy and frenetic, but as layers and veils of colour seep in over time, there is a calculated harmony that our eyes are drawn to investigate.

Viewed in isolation, Polo’s fluid brushstrokes, which morph into jagged corners, work against established ideas of perfection, but in concert with amorphous pools of pastel paint and carefully positioned text there is a natural balance and harmony to each of his works. In this way, Polo’s paintings have been characterised by some as having a quality of ‘childishness’. Of this, he says, ‘I know it’s how some people choose to frame my work, but I think it’s a bit limiting. To each their own, I guess.’

There’s a touch of wit in Polo’s voice, and it leaves me wondering why ‘childishness’ remains such a widespread frame of reference for his work. Is abstraction immediately referential to the immature? Or, is childishness a way that some characterise paintings which look nothing like the figurative surfaces we are so used to, and test our ability to see, as Polo does?

Making sense of why Polo’s work has been infantalised requires us to relive the profound sense of possibility that typifies childhood. It is a period of vast and natural inquisition, of learning and imagination where the world is not posed in absolutes but is rather free and constantly expanding. It is a phase in life that is perhaps stirred within us by Polo’s works, given fuller force in his immersive exhibition, ‘I still thought you were looking’, at Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery earlier this year.

With painted red walls and propped paintings, audiences were submerged in a gallery which felt halfway between a carnival and a film set, needing to constantly choreograph their way through the show to view artworks with better clarity. Behind larger canvases stood smaller ones hidden out of sight, and should one look back the way they came, a work just passed becomes spotlighted more clearly. Should they approach this work again, its scale consumes them, and the clarity just found is lost once more. In this exhibition, the audience played a game that Polo carefully invented: a kind of hide and seek where the winner must recognise the impossibility of seeing the exhibition from one vantage point. Indeed, the feverish energy of Polo’s paintings does something more poetic here than just test how we see: it beckons us to examine where we are socially and physically positioned, to entertain alternate perspectives and understand different ways of looking not just at paintings but also the world.

Having empathy for a multitude of perspectives is an important life lesson, one which Polo kindly choreographs for us. I can’t help but think, then, that perhaps the ‘childishness’ of his works is a feeling embodied within us that Polo teases out, rather than a fact presented on his canvases. To stop and really look at his paintings is to challenge how we wish to see the world.

Unlike the figurative paintings we are so used to consuming, Polo’s works seem to suggest there is no easy way to identify what the truth is that we actually see, for our perspectives shift and are obstructed by where we stand and how we look. What is the value in looking at a painting, then? Polo provides us with no answer, only the agitation to keep searching.

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 48, 2019

Tom Polo: exit strategy
4 July – 1 August 2020
STATION, Melbourne

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