Ben Walmsley Channels Tom Thomson at Birch Contemporary

Ben Walmsley captures the pleasure of landscape painting at his POLYCHROME 2020 exhibition at Birch Contemporary. All is not as it seems, however. The seemingly rapid execution of a selection of Tom Thomson oil sketches, upon closer examination, reveal a methodical, patiently laborious process. That a rigorous analysis of Thomson’s work has gone into Walmsley’s exhibition is evidenced by the colour bar below each work, much the way a bar in musical notation measures segments of time to specific beats and particular value. In this respect, the exhibition is a performance of a suite of visual études. Yet, how could something so obviously studied have been made to look spontaneous?

POLYCHROME I, 2020, mixed media on wood, 14 x 14 in.

Aside from breaking down the colours of each Thomson sketch into eight discrete hues, the artist has separated the application of textured impasto of the ground from its colouration. That is, texture has been rendered in white plaster as underpainting, upon which pigmentation has subsequently been added. In other words, Walmsley had the painterliness baked in even before the first lick of paint. With the exhibition title POLYCHROME, Walmsley points to the historical practice of colouring sculpture with paint. From this perspective, the artist’s version of “The Jack Pine” was essentially complete before it was ever painted.

POLYCHROME X, 2020, mixed media on wood, 14 x 14 in.

How do these Walmsley paintings hold up to the Thomson originals? Since the intent of the artist was not to make a slavish copy of the subject, the question may not be a fair one. With a one to one comparison between them, of course the Walmsley doesn’t measure up. Attempt at equivalency may not be the point. His approach has been, rather to “score” each Thomson sketch before “playing” them. With this, the distinction between a Walmsley and a Thomson is unambiguous. A buyer at the POLYCHROME exhibition clearly buys a Walmsley, not a Thomson. Furthermore, with the works being separated by a century, the obvious cultural differences between the respective times become fundamental to the discussion. A contemporary artist can’t duplicate what Thomson and the Group of Seven accomplished. To provincial admirers of an academically-painted landscape, a Thomson painting was radical. Group of Seven exhibitions actually aroused critical and public outrage in their time. To the general public today, artistic transgressions, were they to occur, don’t garner much interest. 

POLYCHROME XIV, 2020, mixed media on wood, 14 x 14 in.

Technically, Walmsley’s POLYCHROMEs fall under the category of Appropriation Art. There is an implication in the term that something is being stolen without an owner’s permission. In ways that I have already discussed, the label doesn’t quite apply here in the strictest sense. Walmsley has taken pains to formalize the painting of his Thomson’s in the direction of a match between an original and his version of it. From painting to painting, the artist seems to have hung up his brush after lobbing his colours across the white sculpted court in eight distinct sets. I enjoyed the show.

POLYCHROME IV, 2020, mixed media on wood, 14 x 14 in.

Steve Rockwell

Images are courtesy of Birch Contemporary, photo: Toni Hafkenscheid

*Exhibition information: Ben Walmsley, POLYCHROME 2020, September 10 – October 17, 2020, Birch Contemporary, Birch Contemporary, 129 Tecumseth Street, Toronto. Gallery hours: Wed – Fri 10 am – 6 pm, Sat 11 am – 5 pm.

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