“What humans do on the Earth is fascinating to me,” says artist Blair Thornley from her home in San Diego. Her paintings feel theatrical — outdoor stage sets populated by anonymous figures, chairs, cars, and the occasional sinewy, defoliated tree — a “California dream” of urban banality.
“The idea that we’ve invented these shopping malls to go shopping in!” she says. “What I really love is taking something like an ugly shopping mall and finding the shapes, and the energy, and the craziness.”
Thornley’s show of paintings and watercolors opens at Rice Polak Gallery in Provincetown on Thursday, July 8, alongside works by Bruce Ackerson, Peter Arvidson, and Mike Stilkey. She is new to Rice Polak, having been represented by Harmon Gallery in Wellfleet before it closed.
Thornley has lived in California for 30 years. “It was only about two or three years ago,” she says, “that I said I feel good out here. Before that, I was like, ‘God, those palm trees are so silly looking!’ I was like a fish out of water.” The time it took her to settle in may be related to having moved around a lot: “Before I lived here, I had 27 different homes,” says Thornley. She grew up in New Jersey, Connecticut, and Michigan. She went to school in New York City and spent many years in Providence and Boston, as well as in Europe.
Her anchor was Truro, where Thornley’s grandparents bought an old sea captain’s house on 20 acres in 1930. Her parents still live there. “My father built a cottage on part of that land, and we spent summers in Truro,” she says. When she was living in Boston, she would drive to Truro for the afternoon, sometimes on the spur of the moment, in the middle of winter.
“I do sculpture, I do ceramics, I do monoprints,” she says. “Next fall or winter, I’m going to teach myself how to do sugar lift prints. In September, I’m going to be working on a book about moths in Maine. I guess I jump around a lot, but everything feeds the other thing.”
Thornley’s watercolors recall the work of Saul Steinberg. In The Bird Who Came to Dinner, doll-like figures cavort in a halcyon bubble filled with cats, birds, bugs, and butterflies. The figures are a little disembodied, blending with their surroundings. Combining fine line with saturated blocks of color, the works flip-flop between the dreamy and the everyday. They are as odd as they are fun — born of a playful mind rather than a mindful reality.
Whereas Thornley’s illustrations feel purposeful, her paintings are open and indeterminate. They generate more questions than answers, and are so slyly pulled off that you don’t notice you’ve stepped into a world that is as much your creation as Thornley’s. “Other people will have to invent their own narrative,” she says. “I don’t even want people to know what my narrative is, but there is usually a lot more behind it than is obvious.”
The work constantly reinvents itself. “The material really dictates that,” says Thornley. When she is working with line, she says, her pieces tend to look humorous. “As soon as I get into oil paint, everything looks more serious. There’s something in the middle, which is combining my history with the things that I’ve seen and experiences I’ve had — East Coast and West Coast, childhood and adulthood — all meshed into the paintings.”
Thornley credits her obsession with the built environment to her father, who was an architect. “I also love interiors seeing to the exterior — and vice-versa — through windows and doors,” she says. “Manmade things are just endlessly interesting.”
Though skilled in accurately rendering a figure or a face, Thornley prefers “figuring out how to get the feeling of a person across, or the feeling of the character on some realm, with minimal brush stokes, minimal detail.” Bowen Street started with the figure swimming in the pool before she added a disproportionately larger central figure. “I had this strong impulse to abstract it by changing the scale. Once I did that, I was free to do whatever I wanted with color and shape.”
Where Thornley’s work shines is in the emotional narrative connecting her to a time and place. “It’s a little like Jungian dream analysis,” she says. “I’ll become aware that I am actually painting things from parts of my history, making sense out of it the way a dream would.”
For Thornley, making art is a sort of emotional clearinghouse, a way of reorganizing her life. Orange Creuset Leftovers is an interior of the Truro cottage her father built. Her first memory is of being inside that cottage and looking at the goings on.
“I can see it so clearly,” she says. “It’s exciting to go back into time and make a memory into something. There’s a deep emotional need to revisit.”
On a Whim
The event: A show of works by Blair Thornley, alongside those by Bruce Ackerson, Peter Arvidson, and Mike Stilkey
The time: Thursday, July 8 through July 21; opening reception Friday, July 9 from 7 to 9 p.m.
The place: Rice Polak Gallery, 430 Commercial St., Provincetown
The cost: Free