Some gentle soul created the first bird 100 million years ago from the slender bones of a fish and the downy plume of a thistle. They made it majestic and whimsical. They made it flying and musical. But what manner of creature are we? Why are the wires of the human mind so easily twisted? If we pierced the tips of feathers into our skin and sang in the morning, would we be free? What if we ran naked outdoors and filled our heads with branches and our eyes became broken blue eggshells? What if our bodies became sunlight and piles of broken nutshells? Heaven will be the shedding of the human mind.
Derek Eller Gallery presents Soul Thrown Images, an online viewing room exhibition of new collage works by Tom Thayer which will be on view December 15, 2020 - January 17, 2021. Thayer transforms modest materials like paper, cardboard, tape, and string into dreamlike, ephemeral works on paper depicting mysterious figures, birds, shapes, and desolate scenery. His practice of spinning narrative encompasses object-making, live action, sound, projection, and writing.
Q & A with artist Matt Hoyt
MATT HOYT: The world and vision expressed in your work spills over, seemingly effortlessly, from one medium/discipline to another. Maybe it’s because this is so obvious that one doesn’t notice, but I’ve never heard you discuss this aspect much. What can you say about the relationship between form and content?
TOM THAYER: To me, the various mediums/disciplines I use are all the same.
I believe the “art” in a work of art resides in the viewer. The artwork activates the art, but it is not the art. Art’s power is slippery and alive. It is hard to pin down because it is an ephemeral thing ignited within us. I see paintings, sculptures, songs, etc., as tools for delivering content, which activate the thoughts, feelings, and wonder of the audience.
To that end, any medium or discipline becomes a part of the same thing– a portal.
A work’s strength depends on how well it functions as a portal. Every aspect of the work affects this: its form, its materiality, its freedom from unnecessary elements, how it retains the gesture of the hand, how well it reflects the state of mind that created it, etc.
Viewing all mediums/disciplines as the same makes it easy to approach them through a singular process, one of naïve exploration. I experiment with each of these mediums/disciplines daily, playing with them as a child plays with nature when exploring in a forest. It is a similar process to experimental approaches to elementary education like Discovery Learning. I have never known the traditional and “proper” ways to use any of the mediums/disciplines I use and have no interest in learning them. That would only introduce extra layers to my work, layers of artifice, and affectation, of which I am not interested. It would make my work look more like other people’s work and put more distance between what I am saying and the audience. I strive to strip that distance down, not to add layers to it.
I am trying to create something magical, as opposed to something masterful. Mastery of technique is uninteresting to me. People’s unique voices, opinions, and outlooks are what excite me, and that usually means inventing their own way of doing things and making their tools.
These ideas are by no way new in the arts: Jean Dubuffet collected foreign instruments to make his music, specifically so he would be unfamiliar with their intended function. He bought a tape recorder when they first came out but immediately threw its instruction manual away, so he would have to develop his own way to use it. Cosey Fanni Tutti has said she never knew nor wanted to know how to play or tune her guitar in Throbbing Gristle. She cut it into the shape of a cricket bat and played it on her lap with screwdrivers and drumsticks. The Incredible String Band too collected exotic instruments from around the world and found their own ways of using them. They even had two non-musicians, Licorice McKechnie and Rose Simpson, join this internationally known rock band to foster the freedom and honesty that accompany not knowing how to do something.
The ideas I mine as an artist come from a deep place, and I have developed all sorts of things in my process to help me get there. But none of them have to do with making paintings, drawings, sculptures, music, writing, puppetry, etc. They have more to do with not knowing how to make those things. If you do not know how to do something, and you have to invent how to do it, that invention can be exciting stuff.
While I keep my mind occupied with the functional task of trying to figure out how to make a puppet's arms move, the more delicate and mysterious things I have to say as an artist have the chance to bubble up through the cracks and show themselves, without the mind squashing them by mistake by helping to "make art."
Creativity and craft are elements used in the creation of art, but for too many people, art ends there, before it can even speak. I am excited by the raw aspects of communication. The strange mumbling that comes from a person when they are sleeping– what could be more real or honest than that? That honesty is where the power in art lies for me. I am not interested in fantasy or storytelling. To experience something that has no story, that is what it is to be human in the most zoomed out and universal way. So most of my effort is spent in trying to access this raw state of direct communication.
A small animal with a musical reed in its throat was living in my yard. Each day in the quiet hours before the sun rose it gave a recital. Its melody drifted through the open window and into my sleeping head. My dreams blossomed under this creature’s spell. I feared it might leave, so each night I placed a small plate of food under the umbrella of an evergreen tree. I enjoyed preparing its meals and it enjoyed eating them. I fed it all sorts of things, but its favorite was raspberries in salad oil.
When the weather turned cold, the creature found some small hole and moved into my house. When the house became dark its song would start and not stop until the sun came up. Its song sounded different within the confines of my home. It was very loud for the ears and I never noticed how shrill it was. No one slept. My family searched high and low but couldn’t find the creature. Was it inside a shoe? Was it under the bureau? Was it stuck between the walls? We roamed the rooms trying to identify its location but the squealing seemed to radiate from all directions at once.
“Do something!” my family demanded. “This is because you fed that thing, and now it wants more!” Unfortunately I knew what I had to do. I got a sharp knife and cut a plate of salad. I placed the salad on the floor, turned off the lights and hid. Soon the animal scurried from its hiding place to the food. I heard its rapid chewing as I crept toward it holding a heavy wooden block in my arms. I stretched my arms out, lined up the block and dropped it onto the creature. I stood motionless for a minute then slowly lifted the block. There was no blood. In fact the creature looked fine, only flat.
For the first time I was seeing my muse. The one who had entered my soul and conducted my dreams. Then I heard its reed. It sounded a shallow wheee - heee - wheee - heee. I realized, although flattened, the creature was still alive. I froze for a moment then stood back. I picked up the wooden block and quickly dropped it onto the creature again. The music stopped.
I scooped the creature up with a small scrap of cardboard and lifted it close to my eyes. Its hair, so clean, smooth and fine, was a color I had never seen before. Its feet were bald and looked like four tiny human hands. Its body was softer than dough and very light, in fact, it weighed almost nothing. Its head was like an egg. Its eyes, nose and mouth looked glued on.
I thought of the reed inside. I punched a small hole in the top of its head with a pencil and put my pinky finger in to feel around, but it was empty. I grasped the head with my fingertips and pulled until it came apart into two equal halves. The inside looked like plush terrycloth. There was no reed. I cut its neck with the salad knife leaving a hinge. I flipped it back and a small felt flap dropped out which was hiding the reed. The reed was painted red and glued in place. I pried it loose with a pair of needle-nose pliers.
I put the reed on the table to dry and went to bed for my first night of sleep in days. Around 3AM the creature came to me in my dreams. I told it I was sorry for killing it. “You didn’t kill me, you killed the feeling you had when I sang” it said. “Will you sing to me now?” I asked. “No.” it said. “Tomorrow?” I asked, “How about tomorrow?” “Never.” It said. I looked down and noticed I was holding the wooden block in my arms and then the creature was gone. I suddenly awoke with a jolt. I went downstairs and got the reed. I took it to the sink and washed it with a bit of detergent. I shook off the water, grasped it with the needle-nose pliers and plunged it down my throat.
The first song I played with the reed, I titled “The Cosmic Mirage”. I didn’t tell anyone but I dedicated “The Cosmic Mirage” to the creature. The theme of the song states the world is as it is, and is not otherwise. An interesting feature of the creature’s reed was once it was inside my throat it became glued in place and could not be removed. To this day no one sleeps.
Q & A with artist & theatremaker Soraya Nabipour
SORAYA NABIPOUR: When did you start pairing the written text with your images? What comes first? How do you decide which pieces are the moving pieces? I loved your recent piece “a small animal with a musical reed in its throat..” and felt a whole range of emotions in response to that one. When I read and look at your work I have this initial feeling of estrangement from myself, which then ironically puts me in touch with myself...if that makes sense...? It’s like everything has been made strange, only to then have this deep sense that the strangeness is the real truth!! So the estrangement is from my everyday-surface-reality-life which isn’t really real.
TOM THAYER: Writing has always played a minor role in my work, mostly in the form of surreal lists of words used in music. But it became a central part of my practice around two years ago while I was organizing my approach to making art.
I used to work late at night and usually in long spurts, during which my eye would shift from seeing things as successful to unsuccessful. I did not know which opinion to trust and regularly ruined or overworked things. I experimented with circadian rhythms to identified what creative tasks best suit my eye and mind throughout different times of the day and when I could trust my opinions about them.
I found 4:30 A.M. offered me the best access to the freedom and intuitive intelligence I foster in my work. I am not sleepy at 4:30 A.M., as I go to sleep early, but I am also not fully awake. I am still half in a dream world. So seven days a week, at 4:30 A.M. is when I begin to work on my art.
Somehow writing became the thing I had the urge to do first in my morning sessions. I felt guilty at first. Like I should be making things, not writing. But soon, I found the writing helped me to make things. I mine imagery and narratives from such a deep place that I often do not know what they are about when they arise. Meister Eckhart said, “When the Soul wants to experience something, she throws out an image in front of her and then steps into it.” I do not want to question my soul’s images. They are in a fragile state and can be crushed easily by a questioning mind. But the writing gave me an additional window into the ideas I was conjuring on any given day. Since I am writing in tandem with finishing an object or image, it sometimes shows me a path for how to clarify and resolve my art objects.
Pairing the object with writing gives me, and the audience, a second perspective into the content of the work. The object and writing are the same pieces presented in two different forms. They act as guideposts for one another, helping me to bring imagery and themes, pulled from a deep and intuitive place, into focus.
Tom Thayer (b. 1970) lives and works in New Jersey. He has performed at SculptureCenter, White Columns, Issue Project Room, and The Museum of Modern Art and was included in the 2012 Whitney Biennial exhibition. He has been included in recent group exhibitions at Stations, Berlin; Tetsuo’s Garage, Nikko, Japan; and WallRiss Gallery, Fribourg, Switzerland. Thayer is an Associate Professor at The City College of New York, CUNY, where he is Director of the MFA program in studio art.