Jim Thalassoudis

... a marking of time

'... precisely fifteen minutes after sunset, not one minute before'1.
Winslow Homer

When the American painter Winslow Homer wrote those words in 1900 describing his painting West Point, Prout's Neck, Maine, his specificity highlighted one of the attributes of sunsets that have assured their continued fascination for artists. Paintings of any other time of day are generalized and identified within hours or broad categories of morning or afternoon, but the dramatic changes that occur in the last minutes and seconds at the end of day demand focus and precision. It is a moment of truth. The vast sky changes so rapidly that fluorescent pinks dissolve before our eyes into soft yellows and then pale streaks of ivory, the intense drama of colliding shapes and colours reduces to a sombre envelope of indigo and the day is over.

This precision and the bravura required to capture 'that magical period of the day leading up to sunset and soon after'2 is a central focus of Jim Thalassoudis' practice as a painter. It is, he continues 'A time where the sky changes dramatically, the colours can be both intense and subtle ... the mystery of the night begins to envelope the land. The day ends, a marking of time' 3.

The sun sinking into the west is such a dramatic mise en scene that it acts as a culturally constructed trigger evoking a range of responses which, if used with skill by an artist, can engage audiences in contemplating more complex ideas while searching for deeper and more profound meaning4. Of course cultural construction of significance and meaning leads to many different points of view and often acts as a catalyst for developing rituals associated with activities or events. For Indigenous Australians the moment of the sun's setting has significance as a time for hunting when the kangaroos come down to drink and the sky is alive with the insects that attract flocks of birds. For Europeans the setting sun was the backdrop to the first flag raising ceremony at Sydney Cove when Governor Arthur Phillip and his officers claimed the new land for His Majesty King George III on 26 January 1788. In different ways we have both claimed the sunset as a time of ritual and commemoration. For Thalassoudis it is a catalyst for exploring associated rituals and a range of diverse ideas and themes that all have their genesis in the extraordinary late afternoon skies over Adelaide.

In an earlier exhibition he explored the Greek notion of Hesperios, 'of the evening, western', where beyond the Arcadian mountains after its daily journey the sun rests in the garden of the Hesperides, beautiful nymphs who guard the fruit of the sacred apple trees5. He clearly embraces the Arcadian premise in a number of those earlier paintings and several fanfare paintings in this show such as A fine day tomorrow 2 and the more subtle Last Light. This latter painting with its soft pinks, blues and ochres is almost abstract in its rendering of the sky and earth as layered bands of colour, describing an idyllic land in which all is harmonious, calm and at peace. It is an altogether understandable response at a time of day when all does seem so extraordinary and even more so when the McNaught Comet streaks across the deep ultramarine sky above a fiery horizon.

Nevertheless, Thalassoudis also acknowledges the dangers of the utopian vision. 'Looking west at evening", he says, '... you do not find Arcadia ... What you may find is seductive beauty in a sunset tarnished by pollution. The grass is not greener elsewhere, no matter how beautiful the vista is.'6

It is worth remembering that some of the most dramatic sunsets that inspired JWM Turner were likely the result of the eruption of the volcano Mt Tambora off Indonesia in 1816, a catastrophe that threw tonnes of ash, dust and debris into the stratosphere and impacted on the colour and intensity of the sunsets while simultaneously devastating the agricultural crops in a 'year without a summer'. It is this edge between pleasure and danger, delight and dread, the beautiful and the deadly that also gives Thalassoudis' work its compelling presence.

Since Romanticism the end of day has had a particular resonance as a time of meditation on the power of God and Nature and the insignificance of human endeavour. For Caspar David Friedrich the end of day is a time to ponder that relationship. In his The Dreamer and Evening Landscape with Two Men, figures with their backs toward us, looking as we do into the picture and out toward the sunset, evoke a sense of melancholy and awe. Humanity can only marvel and pay homage to the power of nature and as Friedrich showed in his extraordinary masterpiece Sea of Ice, in which the frozen sea crushes a puny sailing ship, those who challenge the elements do so at their peril. In Thalassoudis' Distant Lights; Day's End we take the place of Friedrich's hooded figures, standing outside the picture frame but also facing the sunset, the folly of our ways spread before us in the glowing monument to human ego and rapaciousness. The city lights flicker unconvincingly under the great weight of the dark and ominous sky recently drained of colour.

Another of the enduring themes associated with the sunset is that of mortality, comparing the end of day with the end of life - and, often, to rebirth and continuity. 'At the going down of the sun' is the moment of remembrance for fallen soldiers detailed in the Anzac Ode and also a time to rage against death, at 'the dying of the light7'. Thalassoudis also imbues his paintings of the end of day with a similar sense of passing and sombre acknowledgement of loss.

In Into the evening 2 for example, we are drawn inexorably westward by the shafting banks of clouds that direct us toward the sonorous penumbra of night/death. Similarly in Port Adelaide at Dusk, the atmosphere is heavy and reverent; the dark outlines of the world departing into darkness suggesting a slow Wagnerian procession into the night. It is a moment of finality and there is no reprieve. Or is there? In Right Turn we are given an option, the light has turned red, we do not need to proceed into the glowing, golden end of day but have the change to veer off to the right, to somewhere else in the meantime before our final acceptance of the inevitable.

Like his precursors Pieter Brueghel the Elder in his famous image of the death of Icarus8 and JMW Turner in his painting of the last journey of the Téméraire9, Thalassoudis also employs the sunset as a key participant in unfolding narratives and like them his spectacle of finale evokes notions of remembrance, change and continuity. In Let's go out tonight the luminous sunset catches the glossy side panels of a car linking it visually to the pyrotechnic display above. What is happening? Just like a Hitchcock film we are there at the moment, drawn in by the drama of the sky and the potent emptiness of the surrounding darkness, waiting, for something bad or good to happen. Is this the site of a murder about to occur or the aftermath of some other horror, or is it the scene of teenage amour, a lover's lane echoing the climax of day? The artist's explains that the title is borrowed from '... an obscure song by an obscure band 'The Blue Nile'...', which was playing whilst he was photographing the sunset; he '... heard it's roar (Ford 350 GT hoon car) from behind, I didn't look, just went snap when it passed and hoped for the best. The photo came out exactly as seen in the painting... minor cropping made the ratio of sky/black 50/50 ... sometimes you get lucky'10. In the final painting all readings are open and the power of the image is reflected by its ability to hold them all, to conjure up stories from our own memories and experiences and link them to the artist's record of something he encountered, albeit fleetingly. Now it is embedded in our minds forever.

The Approaching storm narrates another tale, or set of possible stories, about to unfold when the tumult hits, literally the calm before the storm as the languid waters arching in the foreground catch the glow of hope on the horizon before the ominous danger of the heavy clouds reach the small community attending the power station and the Caustic Soda factory. Similarly in Going Home, the cavalcade of South Australians making their way home to their families, under a threatening sky at dusk; has all the elements of a film noir classic. Is this scene the precursor to a denouement of death and mayhem or will the tension be defused in Hitchcock style by the routines of dinner and homework? Thalassoudis absorbs us in these narratives and by convincingly creating a space we understand and comfortably inhabit he opens up the possibility for us to become participants in these stories, to bring our own experiences and memories to blend with his visual clues and expand to create more complex scenarios that drill down and lock into our psyche. Sunsets are powerful metaphors.

Although his paintings retain a sense of mystery and openness as containers for the many memories and stories we bring to them, Thalassoudis is remarkably frank and forthright about their fabrication and conceptualization. His lively blog The Painted Sky11 identifies his process of engaging with the sunset as an intellectually and culturally determined experience linked to the history of art, and, as he explains, it is conceived as a kind of 'extra on a DVD, a director's voice over' that provides the insights and reflections of the auteur.

Early in June 2008 he recorded in great detail how a neon sign over a porn shop on the road to Port Adelaide first attracted his attention seven years ago; in two sections of the blog he first outlined the slow genesis of the idea from the first documentary photographs into a riveting image and then the process of taking the painting from a bare canvas to a completed work. Love Art is indeed a memorable image.

The text 'Love Art, Open 7 Days' written in the sky invokes a tantalizing set of ideas about art and the cliché of the sunset. When asked to choose between the neon signs that light up the sky after the sun has set in Nevada or the sunset itself, the American art critic Dave Hickey responded '... that the question of the sunset and The Strip is more a matter of one's taste in duplicity. One either prefers the honest fakery of the neon or the fake honesty of the sunset - the undisguised artifice of culture or the cultural construction of "authenticity" - the genuine rhinestone, finally, or the imitation pearl'12. It is '... nature's ability to mimic the sincerity of a painting' that intrigues him when confronted with the daily event on his horizon and it is a similar conundrum that Thalassoudis presents with such guile in Love Art. Do we love the art of the neon or the 'natural' beauty of the sunset, the artifice of the sign or the supposed reality of the painted sky?

In this current exhibition Into the Night Thalassoudis continues to explore the sunset as an image, symbol and metaphor in a group of paintings that audaciously take the most clichéd subject matter and reinterprets it as a meditation on life, death, beauty, myth, story telling and art. Their seductive colour and orchestrated drama engage us instantly; their long fuse keeps us involved in a complex process of identifying cultural references, blending our own memories and experiences with the stories they tell, and pondering on the new meanings we generate through this complicity.

Ted Snell is Professor of Contemporary Art, and Dean of Art at the John Curtin Gallery, Curtin University of Technology. He is currently Western Australian art reviewer for The Australian and Chair of the Visual Arts Board of the Australia Council.

1 Winslow Homer, West Point, Prout's Neck, Maine, 1900 Clark Art
Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts.
2 Jim Thalassoudis, letter to the author 29 June, 2008
3 Ibid
4 For a more detailed discussion of some of these ideas see my recent
article 'On Sunsets' Artlink Vol 28 No:2, 'art mind and beauty issue's
June 2008 pp20-23.
5 See Eugene Barilo von Reisberg's catalogue essay 'Jim Thalassoudis'
in Hesperios - Of The Evening, Western', 2005 Touring Exhibition.
6 The artist quoted in Eugene Barilo von Reisberg's, Op Cit
7 Dylan Thomas 'Do not go gentle into that good night' Collected Poems
of Dylan Thomas 1934-1952, New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1971.
8 Pieter Breughel, the Elder, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, 1558
9 Joseph Mallord William Turner The Fighting Téméraire tugged to her
Last Berth to be broken up, 1838, 1839.
10 Op Cit, letter to the Author 29 July 2008
11 http://jimthalassoudis.blogspot.com/
12 Dave Hickey, 'A Rhinestone as Big as the Ritz', Air Guitar, Art
Issues Press, 1997.