BY Andrew Gellatly in Reviews | 06 SEP 07
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Issue 52

David Thorpe

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BY Andrew Gellatly in Reviews | 06 SEP 07

Robert Kennedy's famous remark about Frank Stella's painting 'at least we know he has a ruler...' could be re-worked here - at least we know David Thorpe has a modelling knife. He has been cutting paper into skeins of clouds and architectural forms for about three years now, and they have become larger, more technically superb every year. Pencilled-in target marks and guides locate the clouds and tree branches, but once you get close, the shingled surface becomes something else - scaly and weirdly reptilian.

This exhibition of five works (all from 1999) continues the development of his interest in Brutalist architecture, but no longer with the same unending Corbusier-inspired vistas that influenced works such as Forever (1998). In these new pictures, concrete cubes and polygons have been made discrete and misplaced, like Monty Python council flats or caravans that have been uprooted, catapulted across oceans and allowed to roam in the American West. They seem a little out of place, even perplexed in their new neighbourhoods. In Pilgrims three tower-blocks lean out from a clifftop, isolated like John Lautner's trussed and tensioned Malin residence on Mulholland Drive, but below the massive buttresses there is no San Fernando Valley and no Julius Shulman vista, just scratchy pines, cedars and shale.

The fluorescent-lit space at Interim accentuated the slightly swampy, verdigrised feel of one work in particular: Quiet Life is unusual in the way it somehow flattens out the milky, sparsely populated, westwardness of everything. With Out from the Night, The Day is Beautiful and we are Filled with Joy the slightly retro, delta-winged hang-gliders have a Bond movie threat about them, as if a group of sinister Austrian leather-boys might be up there, riding the thermals, priming some kind of air-to-air missile.

In We are Majestic in the Wilderness, Thorpe's absorption in Americana is complete: this view of square houses squatting under an overwhelming rock-face is evidently influenced by Albert Bierstadt's Luminism, the Hudson River School and the paintings of Thomas Moran, such as The Cliff Dwellers (1899). Obviously, Western light isn't nearly the same as the watery East Coast version - the maritime light of New York State is replaced by the flatter, more vaulted sky of the Rocky Mountain States. But Thorpe's approximation of the vitrescent surfaces of the Luminist pictures is an extraordinary thing, like coming nose-up to the nylon scrim of a Robert Irwin installation, but where light is objectified as paper trimmings, experientially real.

Nobody could be surprised that Thorpe was inspired by the definitive song of reel dancing and horse opera, Aaron Copland's Rodeo Hoe-Down (1942). It might not have turned out so well, though, as in Robert Redford's heartlandish, floodlit baseball epic, The Natural (1984), which featured a Copland inspired Randy Newman score, or the epochal, moderately stomach-turning 'Beef, it's what's for dinner' commercial on American TV - Thorpe's sentimentality is under control.

Much more important as a reference point is Spike Lee's movie He Got Game (1998), which juxtaposes inner city basketball games, slo-mos, dunks and spins with the same balletic Copland soundtrack. In his work Thorpe explores concrete BMX parks and sodium lit playgrounds. The connection to Copeland's idealisation of the rodeo rider is striking. In Rodeo King a lone BMX rider pops a wheelie along the skyline's rooftop ridge. Thorpe loves the possibility of human transcendence amongst Brutalist architecture as much as Lee loves the sublime drama of urban basketball courts.

Underlying Luminist painting was a cultural myth that identified the American land as the new Eden, without the ruins of decayed and corrupt civilisations, one that defied Aristotle's warning that people would always want to live in cities. Thorpe has taken his skate-park heroes, cable car riders and hang-gliders and given them a little more room to play under the start-from-scratch American sky.

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