Melbourne-based portraitist Thomas Gibbs explores the influence of compassion, vulnerability and insecurity to the human psyche.
All too often, artistic representations have focused on trying to bring to light the ineffable sensations of pain, struggle, isolation and confusion. Yet what we often overlook, in our attempts to deconstruct the human condition, is the one thing that motivates art to begin with: beauty. For Australian painter Thomas Gibbs, it is this beauty that breathes life into the essence of humanity; that renders us capable of falling in love with our all-too-human selves.
Fittingly, our interview took place in a blooming garden in Tuscany, shielding our eyes from the powerful sun as we sat overlooking colourful stone homes surrounded by soft green hills. Gibbs, 24, talks about his introduction to painting as if recalling a memory of love at first sight: “I was fifteen, travelling through Europe, when I thought I discovered [Paul] Cézanne. I was flipping through a book of his paintings and listening to jazz, when I made an oath to myself to become either a jazz musician or an artist. Cézanne won me over.”
Poetry and paintings share a symbiotic partnership to divulge the essence of human existence. Gibbs’ style of portraiture, both of himself and others, embodies a poeticism that seeps past the subject matter to reveal a beautiful truth; one that can be touched only by a painter with the same sensitivity and curiosity that Gibbs possesses: “I’ve always remembered myself as a people watcher,” says the artist. “I remember one distinctive time when I was about seven, it was New Year’s Eve and I was watching the fireworks. Even as a kid, I had these thoughts in the back of my mind that my brother and mother, who were right next to me, were seeing a completely different perspective to what I was seeing. From then on I kept imagining how other people see people, and how I see people, and how I can show other people how I see people. That probably started my obsession with portraiture.”
Influenced by an experience he had in Thailand when he was 15, Gibbs officially turned to portraiture after being inspired by photorealistic charcoal drawings he saw in Bangkok’s night market. “I picked up a postcard and challenged myself to a portrait of an old wrinkled lady,” he recalls. “I’m interested in people’s stories. When people share their stories, somehow the greatest amount of suffering and pain can be turned to good. People are capable of so much empathy.”
Yet much of Gibbs’ recent works stray from depictions of others, focusing instead on unvarnished representations of his naked self. “I’ve always been interested in authenticity,” he explains. “There was this key moment when I was speaking to someone, and she started arguing with me because she was concerned that I was trying to communicate other people’s stories for them. I figured it was time for me to be completely vulnerable, and to communicate my own story rather than somebody else’s.”
This conscientiousness is what adds such a delicate touch to Gibbs’ portrayals. By embracing his own vulnerability, this artist captures that which is akin to all of us who are too afraid to place ourselves at the heart of our own judgments, interpretations and conclusions. Confident that he will eventually re-examine others through portraiture, Gibbs’ insistence on human connection through personal examination accentuates the depth and poignancy of his pieces. “My desire is to see a rebirth of authenticity, where the artwork is truly expressing something of the artist. I think there is currently a rebirth of sincerity in art. I think people are interested in painting as a medium because it is inherently a vehicle for emotion. In that sense it is accessible to everybody, because everybody knows emotion. The artist has a responsibility to be naked, metaphorically speaking. And of course I did that literally.”
As a young artist in a contemporary art scene, Gibbs’ work – and that of many other creators emerging from any institutionalised art world – is often scrutinised in reference to popular themes of today. With so much contemporary art being reduced to preconceived tropes, it has become difficult, even for the viewer, to see art for what it simply is. “I’m interested in beauty in art, and what I see in the institution of art is an aesthetics of suspicion. People have become suspicious of beauty because beauty awakens longing, awakens our innermost desires. If you look at society today, beauty is used to manipulate, to try and subvert our longings, to try and sell us something.
“As a young artist, you can be so bent on avoiding cliché because you want your artwork to look mature, that you avoid saying anything at all. I believe that if you are going to put a substantial message in your artwork, it must pass through cliché. Every artist has to be cliché in a particular moment. This is where I want to see a rebirth of authenticity – where the artist has something to say again.”
Perhaps our fatal flaw as a modern society is seeing beauty as one-dimensional and simplistic, incapable of awakening our complexities. Too often we are deterred from expressing true human emotion in fear of the cliché, yet we forget that artistic expression, in its essence, is a product of universal emotional truisms.
Gibbs looks out onto the fountain of water before us in the garden. “I think water is the most mysterious thing on the planet. It’s more beautiful than any jewel I’ve ever seen. The fluidity, the way it melts and melds and reflects incredible dazzling light. And it’s the most abundant thing but it’s also too often completely overlooked. It’s absolutely multidimensional.” Through his musings, Gibbs is touching upon something much more profound than nature and its elements. What shines through in his paintings is the message of hope. And that is what sets him apart.