“The principle of laughter and the carnival spirit on which the grotesque is based destroys this limited seriousness and all pretense of an extratemporal meaning and unconditional value of necessity. It frees human consciousness, thought, and imagination for new potentialities. For this reason, great changes… are always preceded by a certain carnival consciousness that prepares the way.” 

Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, 1965.

In I still thought you were looking, we make sense of things through the power of colour. We see what is possible when our senses are heightened, our sight sharpened, fully engulfed in Tom Polo’s vibrant world. Polo’s ability to transform a space and to manipulate the viewer’s experience is a testament to his ability not just to create beautiful, charged paintings but to conceive whole painted environments, transforming spaces and immersing people within them.

We are stripped of the quiet, contemplative environment in which we expect to view art. Jolted into an electric field of humming colour and simmering energies, we walk straight onto a blood red stage set. The only space indicated in the room is that occupied by the paintings. Everything is red. Space is flattened. The artist-magician taunts us to walk between and around the floating paintings. We disappear behind, we reappear: each painting viewable from different vantage points, partially obscured and revealed from diverse points in the room.

We half expect the jeering faces in the paintings, giggling with us, to step out of the frame and join us for a twirl around the red room. In this tango with Polo’s coterie of characters - looming arms and grinning faces, a bevel of distorted limbs and large hands - we notice the same depth of space and play of perspective exists within the paintings. The figures mimic us. Did the yellow head with a long orange arm just wink?

Much like the stock characters of Italy’s la commedia dell’arte, exaggerated caricatures of real life jostle with the viewer. Yet the artist-cum-director is pulling the strings. We are part of the ‘lazzo’, the players in joke.

As knowing-or-unknowing participants, the theatricality required in viewing is enhanced by the role of masking both implied within the paintings and informing our relationship with the work. In this ‘theatre of the absurd’ the artist makes every effort to destabilise our position as viewer. Like Mikhail Bakhtin’s ‘carnivalesque,’ the usual order of things is subverted, overtaken by the spirit of carnival. Anything is possible.

There is a buzzing tension present, yet nothing in here is discordant. Polo’s palette of primaries, different hues of the same colour are deliciously layered like icing: the signature cobalt blue nudging aquamarine, glowing gold washing into lemon yellow, making way for soft divergences with peach and chalky grey. The vibrant, pulsating energy enables us to experience painting in an entirely different manner. We experience the work with our body.

The bold choice of red, a colour associated with blood and flesh, with the heart and its emotions of love, anger and passion suffuses a corporeal space. There is a feeling we have stepped inside something, we have discovered a secret, we are in a private realm.

There is an intense urgency to this work, a testament to the moment, to fleeting glimpses of the artist’s own life, to current time: a snatch of a conversation, a gesture, a word, a moment of meaning. Yet on departing from that moment, we are drawn back in history. The point of conception drawing perhaps from the Flaneur of Charles Baudelaire’s 19th century Paris - removed from the world, observing yet inexorably part of it.

With the artist-observer, contemporary time shifts, and a sense of timelessness pervades. The pure, joyous use of colour connects us with the fauves of early 20th century France, the bizarre figures aligned with the Surrealists or Dadaists, and the theatricality of the stage set land us directly in Sonia Delaunay’s creations for Les Ballet Russes.

With characters like those of Jean Dubuffet’s heads, and limbs twisted on their axis like Picasso, we have most certainly time travelled directly to Henri Matisse’s L’Atelier Rouge (1911) to find like Matisse “ that all these things… only become what they are to me when I see them together with the colour red”.  

Victoria Scott

Tom Polo (b. 1985) holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts (Hons. Class 1) and Master of Fine Arts from the College of Fine Arts, UNSW. Recent solo exhibitions include of defence and doubt, Galerie Transit, Mechelen, Belgium (2018); (These Things) Tell Me More About You, Mornington Peninsular Regional Gallery, Mornington, Victoria (2017); What Goes On Here, Tom Polo for Spectrum Now, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney (2016) and One-Liner or Suggestions for Conversation in Social Situations, Firstdraft, Sydney (2009).

Polo has also participated in several group exhibitions and art fairs. Currently he is included in The National 2019: New Australian Art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney. Other group exhibitions include Art Brussels 2019, Galerie Transit, Mechelen, Belgium (2019); Beyond Reason: exploring the logic of the imagination, QUT Art Museum, Brisbane (2018); Meditation on a bone: Albert Tucker beyond the modern, curated by Glenn Barkley, Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne (2018); Primavera 2017, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, NSW (2017); Looking at Me Through You, Campbelltown Arts Centre, Sydney (2017); Painting. More Painting, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne (2016) and Time & Vision: New work from Australian Artists The Bargehouse, London, UK (2012).

Polo was a finalist of the Archibald and Sulman prizes at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney in 2018 and awarded the Brett Whiteley Travelling Art Scholarship in 2015. He completed residencies at Palazzo Monti, Brescia, Italy (2018); Art Space, Sydney (2017); the Cité Internationale des Arts, Paris (2016) and ACME Studios, London (2016). His work is included in several public and private collections in Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States of America.

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