Elizabeth Thomson (b.1955) travelled extensively before enrolling at Elam School of Fine Arts, University of Auckland in 1982, where she studied printmaking while also pursuing her interest in sculpture. She was recipient of the Elam Scholarship in 1985, the Joe Raynes Scholarship and graduated with Master of Fine Arts with First Class Honours in 1988. Thomson has received a number of grants and awards and her work is held in a number of public collections. She has taught courses in a variety of media at several institutions. In addition to her gallery exhibitions Thomson has undertaken numerous commissions for site specific works. Thomson lives in Wellington where she works as a full-time artist.
Working at the interface between art and various forms of natural science, Elizabeth Thomson can, at times, be described as a surrealist – at other times she is a detached observer/investigator of the arcane and the remote.
Drawing on the abstract language of music, philosophy and mathematics, Thomson’s art is also shaped by the material world in which she finds herself. When the glass-bead surface of one of her works glistens, the effect is somewhere between a morning garden covered in dew, the static on a television screen and a visualisation of Pythagoras’s notion of celestial harmony. Such is the ambiguous, paradoxical poetry of these works. Elizabeth Thomson locates her work on the boundary between the known and the unknowable, the beautiful and the uncomfortable. Pushing the notion of the ‘beautiful’ into new territories, Thomson’s work can be said to contain a difficult beauty.
Playing off delicacy with an at time harsh and alienating aesthetic, the works perplex as much as they beguile. The lyricism of her forms and arrangements is often counterbalanced by an element of the Gothic; sumptuousness is played off against austerity.
While Thomson’s dizzying perspectives and optically challenging orchestrations make us aware of the limits of both eye and rational mind, the alluring and at time perplexing surfaces of her work take us into a tactile, sensual world of roughness and smoothness, hardness and softness, opacity and translucence. The materials she uses, which include hand-formed glass, bronze, zinc, beading and fibreglass, attain new and often surprising nuances of meaning and association, hinting at emotional states as well as referencing the forms and processes of landscape, entomology and botany.
Her work is also rich in layers of cultural history, engaging with a myriad of sources, from elaborate vestments and religious iconography to the patterning on traditional kimono, from the form gardens of Europe to the mandala forms of Eastern spirituality.
The orderliness and the disorderliness of Nature was a central theme in the major touring survey exhibition ‘Elizabeth Thomson – My Hi-Fi My Sci-Fi,’ which was originated by the City Gallery Wellington in 2006 and subsequently toured nationally.
While Thomson’s wall-sculptures are meticulous, ‘high fidelity’ productions, her art also reflects a fascination with the ruptures, disjunctions and absurdities of the natural world – hence the element of science fiction, or ‘sci-fi,’ which is never far from the surface.
On the boundary between two- and three-dimensionality, Elizabeth Thomson’s works occupy both wall and airspace. Balancing observation and imagination, organisation and invention, order and adventure, her art is an eloquent exploration of both a state of mind and the state of the world we inhabit.
Meticulous, and audacious, by equal measure, sculptor Elizabeth Thomson’s work suggests the role of the artist might also by that of botanist, mathematician, aviator, micro-biologist and teller of tall tales.
– Gregory O’Brien