“A painting is both an image and an object. I like to get these two things to influence each other. It’s important to me that I make objects; things in the world.” A studio visit with Jason Thompson.

Jason Thompson is an artist based at Metal Edge Hill Station. He studied at Chelsea College of Art & Design from 1990 to 1995, completing a BA and an MA in Fine Art. Jason’s work is included in the collections of The Walker Art Gallery, The Arts Council Collection and the Office of Public Works, Ireland. Jason was shortlisted for the John Moores Painting Prize in 2010 and for the Liverpool Art Prize in 2014. He is currently represented by Wilson Stephens and Jones, London and BDDW Annex Gallery, New York. 

We visited Jason at his studio to chat about his practice, where his ideas come from, how he goes about making a painting and how he feels about his work.

Metal Edge Hill is an art organisation based in Edge Hill Station, the oldest active passenger railway station in the world. If you walk into the station and go through the underpass to Platform 3 there is a second building, which houses artists’ studios. Jason’s studio is on the first floor. It’s surprisingly warm and, although it is in an open plan area, it feels quite private. There is a large window that looks out onto the station grounds.

The studio is pretty full; there are pieces of wood, a pile of brushes, enamel paints, woodwork tools, paintings and bits of paintings. In fact it’s not obvious which paintings are finished and which are in progress, but we learn that it isn’t always obvious to Jason either. Jason tells us he doesn’t really like the idea of having to describe his practice with words, or theorising it. It doesn’t really feel good enough to use words and painting is something very hard to ‘explain’. He feels the painting is enough in itself, or rather that it should be, as painting is essentially non-verbal. This writing is based more on how Jason makes his work and what he observes and enjoys about the process.

Jason’s artistic process is based heavily on intuition. There is no plan or idea of what the finished thing might look like. The paintings grow organically. He describes them as being a bit like flowers. In fact, Jason uses metaphors a lot when talking about his paintings. He might say, ‘It takes on a life of its own’ or ‘It’s like they are alive.’ Jason enjoys thinking about evolution, how things grow and develop and find a way. It’s a natural process that can’t always be analysed. He says, “Evolution works by trial and error in many tiny steps or decisions and leads to the appearance of a design, but this design or plan is an illusion. There is a quote from Richard Dawkins I like; he says ‘The process by which life evolved is ‘the non-random survival of randomly varying replicators’ and I like to think that also describes how my paintings come about”  His ‘sort of/sort of not symmetrical’ paintings are not unlike the natural world, in the way that they have a certain structure, but then go off course a bit.

“What usually happens is a mark is made, something instinctive and unplanned, usually bouncing off something  accidental. Then that mark is usually copied or reflected or mirrored in some way. The copying of something usually transforms it slightly in some way. Then more marks are made responding to that, which are also copied. And in each copy there are adaptations and accidental changes. A structure or pattern will form itself. The image will grow and unfold out of itself.” 

The initial marks of the paintings are often informed by the wood Jason is using. He sees how this is a continuation of and an interaction with something that already exists in the world. But then the image will grow and the marks will start to alter the shape of the wooden support.  Jason says,  “Eventually, the image often grows to the extent that it ‘outgrows’ the original support and pieces of wood might be added to the original panel (or cut off it, or transplanted from another painting) to reshape the support as the image demands.” Jason paints with enamel paint. He started using enamels because they are cheap and he doesn’t like the idea that artists should have to use special ‘proper’ materials.

When Jason was studying at Art School he made work that looked like faces. The faces began to evolve into patterns and become joined by stylised hands and feet and genitals (the points at which a body ‘communicates’ with other bodies and the world). It was always important for him that the paintings were considered as objects.  He says, “A painting is both an image and an object. I like to get these two things to influence each other. It’s important to me that I make objects; things in the world.” During his MA, the paintings became almost entirely wooden blocks, which could be arranged and re-arranged in any combination of ways to be displayed. Eventually the blocks became thinner and flatter and evolved back into what look like wall-hanging paintings.  

Jason used to bury his paintings, but didn’t tell anyone that he was doing it. He didn’t necessarily want them to be found. He was just sort of leaving them to carry on their life, putting them back into the world. When he finally did tell someone he was burying paintings, he stopped. Jason explained, “The burying thing felt very important at the time. It was to do with lots of things, but it was a strong impulse. I think of the paintings as seeds for a start. I also felt the sense of a kind of ‘sacrifice’ and a principal of giving, in order to receive, that I wanted to be part of a flowing movement. I knew I wanted them to be genuinely lost so I never made any record of it. I knew this would make the whole thing ‘unreal’ but I never realised how private I should have kept it. I never mentioned it to anyone for a long time, but as soon as I did it was immediately ruined. I think speaking about it just turned it into some silly, phony “art project” and I had no desire to do it again.”

Jason wanted to study on a course where he’d be left alone and, after a year of not getting accepted anywhere and for that year, continuing to paint just for himself, he went to Chelsea College of Art in London. At that time, the Chelsea painting department was split into “3rd floor” painters and “4th floor” painters. The 3rd floor was mostly more traditional, in the sense that they tended to use canvas and oil paints. The 4th floor tended to be people who made things that were more object orientated, but had some kind of relationship (sometimes very loose) to painting. Jason was on the fourth floor. “I remember most of the tutors not really saying much to me. I would work on the floor a lot and have piles of collected bits of things and they would kind of step over me on their way to see someone else.”

After he finished his degree he didn’t want to get a job, so he did a Masters at Chelsea. He thought he wouldn’t get in because it was run by the 3rd floor painters, but he did and had a room of his own which he really liked. He had a good experience at Art School and recalls one of his tutors, Roger Ackling, whom he really admired. Ackling has sadly died now. “Roger would come and talk to me for a long time and we had great chats, which really helped me, though I don’t remember us really talking about painting directly very much. It always seemed to be about something else, which afterwards I would then realise, applied to whatever it was I was interested in doing. Roger was a brilliant artist and teacher, I feel very lucky to have met him.”

Jason used to work smaller. He would hold the small paintings in his hands and on his lap when he was working on them. He only started making bigger work once he got a studio and it occurred to him that he had the space. After returning to Liverpool, Jason worked as an invigilator at the Walker Art Gallery. He used to make sketch books that were pocket-sized, so he could get them out and put them back easily and work on them while he was invigilating. He was often interrupted, but that turned out to be a good thing, as it made him open the book at a different page or see what he was drawing in a different way. Jason likes to draw and write on the backs of his paintings. Even now, often in the beginning, there is writing on the front of the painting, but it gets changed into a motif as the painting evolves.

When Jason’s paintings are hung on walls you can’t see their backs, so you might not know that if you turn them round to reveal what’s behind, you find that they are made of different pieces of wood, assembled together. Jason builds his paintings adding more pieces of wood, painting over bits, sanding the painting down and sometimes cutting up the paintings and rearranging the pieces. It can take years for him to finish a painting. They will hang around the studio for ages, sometimes getting older and taking on dust from the room. They sit with him while he decides what to do.

When Jason is making a painting he spends a lot of time looking at it and then thinking about what to do next. When he makes a decision, sometimes just before he is about to do the thing he has decided, he does something else instead, or sometimes the paint does something different from what he intended; it drips a different way or something. He feels like this ‘interruption’ is a good thing; it’s part of responding to the moment. Sometimes Jason puts in artificial interruptions, which he feels helps him to not take things too far and makes him stop and look at the painting. He listens to the quiet of his mind to know what to do with them next. It’s like a collaboration between Jason and the wood and the paint. Afterwards he might analyse why he made certain decisions or why something ‘works’ or not, but when he is making the work he is not really thinking in that way – he is more in the present moment.

Because the paintings are made from old bits of wood that he finds, they have already had a past life before he takes them on. They have an interaction with him and then he sends them off into the world when he is happy that they are in a ‘resolved’ state. He likes the idea that if his paintings are bought by someone, then their life continues; they start a new chapter.

To find out more about Jason Thompson and see images of his work visit https://www.iamjasonthompson.com