The stark and arresting picture of the skull towards the left of the top picture is entitled Vessel. It forms the centrepiece of this new exhibition and faces you as you enter the Unit London gallery. It’s typical of what Tom French has earned a reputation for – monochrome works featuring an illusory quality. Recent circumstances have given such works an extra poignancy.
The skull has been a recurrent symbol of mortality in art culture. Tom French saw it as representing the fragility of life. In a bitter twist of fate, the 36-year-old artist died of cancer a few days ago on Christmas day. This exhibition has become part of his legacy.
Look at the same work close-up and its whole nature changes. The illusion is laid bare as it becomes clear that the nose is actually an arm and shoulder, the mouth elongated fingers and the eyes female faces.
Newcastle painter Tom French’s works are all about the relationship between mind and body. Vessel is one of a series of works that involve Dualism, the philosophy that the physical and the psychological are separate entities. The figurative elements in these double image illusion paintings represent the conscious while the abstracted structure in which he places them mirror all those emotions and drives that make up our subconscious. His paintings represent the relationship between the two.
Like all his Duality works, Dualities 6 is very carefully and technically worked out. Close-up, the hands and fingers become the nose. Whole faces and an ear become the pupils of the eye, fingers become lips. The way he plays with scale is part of the appeal.
The small figures are almost photo-realist in their execution and their classic poses and dreamlike expressions blend into the swirling abstract elements. French leaves plenty of open space in order to balance the intensity of the image. In French’s own words, “there is no single reality here, the realities transcend and co-exist, they repeat and overlap and, particularly with the illusion works, transcend the usual boundaries”. The distorted, ragged nature of the outer face leaves plenty of room too for individual interpretation.
Transcend is, in a way, a development from a previous exhibition of the same name held at the Lawrence Alkin Gallery in London in 2016. French was one of the first artists the Unit gallery showed and some of the Duality series were kept back so that none of the works here were in the previous show. There is a significant difference, however, in that this new exhibition also features a series called Parallax in which he has moved away from illusion.
Paintings such as Parallax 3 above, the scale of which you can gauge by seeing French working on it, has that same mixture of abstract and figurative but the psychological element is much freer, wilder even. The turmoil, anxieties, doubts, guilt, confusion, you name it are all captured by the swirling gestural brushstrokes. French has placed the figures almost like a collage and the sense of movement he creates is enhanced by their outstretched arms and subtle change of angles, hence the name Parallax.
According to the gallery’s co-owner, Joe Kennedy, the artist put extra effort into the works in the show, knowing that he was dying. The title Transcend was important for him. “He wanted that title to be the focus and he wanted the focus to be on cementing his legacy of someone who is looking past the idea of mortality and the idea of a transcendental state.”
There’s another obvious difference too. Frost’s identity as an artist was forged in black and white. He spoke in the past about not wanting to overcomplicate already complex pieces. What’s more, he felt black and white possessed a timeless quality associated with memory, like old black and white photos and movies.
Yet he introduced colour for the first time for this exhibition, albeit injudiciously and in a bright yellow, a sign of hope or optimism perhaps. Joe Kennedy knew him well. “When he was diagnosed and realised how ill he was, he started painting with this show in mind and wanted to introduce colour for the first time. He said using colour was like therapy for him in the studio…it gave him solace and he was breaking new ground in his work and it’s just so sad that he’s never going to get the chance to explore that further.”
It’s a commercial fact that when a person dies young and his output therefore ceases, his prices go up. His wife and two young children will at least benefit from this and the decision to produce annually limited edition prints of certain of his works.
Aside from the human tragedy, it is a great pity that French, who was clearly maturing as an artist both conceptually and technically, should be cut off in his prime.
You can see Transcend at Unit London, 3 Hanover Square, Mayfair, W1S 1HD until 29 February 2020.
All images are courtesy of the artists’s estate and gallery.