By Wim Roefs
“I think of my images as free floating narratives,” Tom Stanley wrote in 1995. That’s still true for his work, including his most recent series, “The Neighborhood.” In his narratives, Stanley seems to be on the move. He’s “Floating,” “En Route to Hamlet” or going “Across the River,” as his series’ titles indicate.
As he travels, physically but more so in his mind, Stanley explores human activity. His tableaus are composites of scenes, structures or objects he has seen and symbols, letters and words linked to people and experiences. “The idea, I supposes, is the journey,” Stanley said in 1998.
In “The Neighborhood,” the eye strolls from a row of houses or larger structures to a church or a power-line tower. Stanley places the elements next to or on top of each other, creating a delicate construction of clues to his views about society. He often exhibits several paintings in a horizontal row, providing complimentary angles on a subject.
His neighborhoods, Stanley says, represent “built environments that are forms of human expression.” Symbols for oil and electricity are monuments of survival. There are large wheels, often with buildings or other structures balancing on them. There’s a bucket, a spigot or a chemist’s bottle.
Stanley’s recycling of images in different series suggests that as he emphasizes specific concerns, he’s developing a broader, integrated view of “human expression.” Many elements of “The Neighborhood” already appeared in “Floating,” then placed on large ships, combined with symbols of oil and warfare but also of nature and the circus. Nature, especially trees, as well as boats, wheels and imposing architectural structures featured in “Across the River.” There, Stanley also explored family history – more specifically, the mysterious 1920 drowning death of his grandfather in the Mississippi River at New Orleans.
Many of the elements in the work go back to the early 1990s. Inspired by self-taught artists he worked with as a curator, Stanley began to mine his own experience, memories and environment – “my myth,” as he has called it – in a free-associative, even stream-of-conscious manner. This resulted in colorful, crowded-but-balanced tableaus populated by dozens of small, roughly rendered objects, shapes, structures, symbols and big and small Pacman-like profiles.
From the mid-1990s, Stanley gave the individual elements in his busy work their own space, isolating them in small, square paintings. He installed dozens of them in flowing, lively narratives called “En Route to Hamlet.” The shape and size of the installation would change according to the space Stanley exhibited in.
Aesthetically, too, the work had a distinctly un-academic, informal feel. In addition to self-taught artists, the paintings related to Art Brut and the likes of Jean Dubuffet and Paul Klee. But already with “Hamlet,” a formalization of Stanley’s work set in. The Hamlet series maintained an informal painting and drawing style, but the isolation of individual elements in sparse paintings gave them a formal touch.
The late-1990s’ “Profile En Route to Hamlet” series was busy again but clearly and deliberately organized around a large head in profile. And in the “Profiles” series of 2003, the large head shared a rather barren environment with only a few geometric forms. The change since the mid-1990s from rather colorful to a muted, sometimes even darkish palette also increased the work’s formal quality.
The series “Across the River” of 2002 – 03 seems pivotal. In it, the mechanical, hard-edged drawing style, the strict, calculated compositions and the stylized shapes that define Stanley’s current work begin to dominate. And while the personal remained important, the human figure through the profile disappeared.
In his last few series, Stanley has intensified the hard-edged, geometric narrative form. He has replaced muted colors with stark black-and-white compositions, sometimes with a touch of red. The human figure is gone even as humanity remains Stanley’s focus. Stanley’s autobiographical presence of the early 1990s has made way for the artist as analyst, as distant observer. “Tom in the world” has become “the world Tom lives in.”