Michael Tompkins at Paul Thiebaud Gallery

Detail from Michael Tompkins’ Mackerel’s Barge (2005)

* * *

Michael Tompkins was born to paint plywood—to be precise, the edges of plywood panels. In each of the five paintings in his New York debut at the Paul Thiebaud Gallery, Mr. Tompkins brings an astonishing gift for trompe l’oeil mimicry to depictions of the sad sack of lumber. Aligned along the bottom edge of each canvas, exquisitely limned plywood planks hold a variety of objects. To name just a few: fruit, a flashlight, a billiard ball, a roll of twine, books about Arthur Dove and by Monica Ali, power tools, marbles and a bottle of A-1 steak sauce, albeit without the telltale logo.

Mr. Tompkins packs and stacks these items into immaculately composed arrangements. (Their emphatic juxtapositions of vertical and horizontal motifs lead me to believe that he’s a fan of Mondrian.) If you look closely at a marble in one of the paintings, you’ll see a tiny, barely discernible self-portrait of the artist in his studio or, at least, in an interior. This miniaturist tidbit is a miracle of painterly verisimilitude. Is it a bit too much to say that Mr. Tompkins’ skill is awesome? Maybe not.

The paintings are sneakily elastic. What appear to be straightforward depictions of actual stuff are rife with baffling fluctuations in space. Mr. Tompkins’ shelves seem rather shallow, but the objects gathered on them suggest a deeper, not always logical berth—there’s no way all these things could plausibly fit into their allotted spaces. The ensuing dialogue between fidelity to the world of appearances and shifty, theatrical artificiality is quietly engaging, if not completely satisfying. All the attention to nuance and craft comes without an overriding sense of aesthetic mission. The paintings are more tricky than profound, less magical than flashy.

The paintings of William Bailey and Giorgio Morandi are antecedents for Mr. Tompkins’ work, and it suffers, if not fatally, from the comparison. We never feel the otherworldly weight of tradition that permeates Mr. Bailey’s still lifes, nor the plainspoken yearning for archetypal structures found in Morandi’s canvases. Mr. Tompkins is his own man, of course. He deserves each pat on the back he gives himself. Those who expect more from art than sparkling expertise might be less congratulatory, but that’s not to say congratulations aren’t in order. This is an impressive introduction and, perhaps, an augur of greater things to come.

© 2005 Mario Naves

Originally published in the October 10, 2005 edition of The New York Observer.

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