Traces of an Artist’s Journey: An appraisal of Thornhill’s work

Alan Thornhill describes his sculpture as expressive rather than cerebral. Its images stem from his unconscious and his experience of materials rather than from concept or theory. This does not mean that he is not a thinking man or that a great deal of thought has not gone into the making of his sculptures. It means that he wants us, the viewer, to look at and experience his work directly, without necessarily resorting to the lens of art history or art criticism to do so. It is our impressionable selves he hopes will stand before his works and respond to them as much with spirit and heart as with mind. He wishes to move us rather than to provoke us intellectually.

This way of looking at art is not necessarily easy for a contemporary viewer to manage. We live in a primarily literary culture and increasingly the experience of looking and appreciation involves a great many words: the words of the artists themselves through interview and catalogue notes, of curators through essays justifying their inclusion of an artist, and of course the words of critics, historians and commentators, whose job it is to interpret and place the work within the accepted canon of art history and contemporary art practice.

It is perfectly possible to go around an exhibition in a major museum, catalogue in hand, wearing an audio guide, reading large display boards of text in each room, and arrive at the end of the exhibition in the belief that one has ‘understood’ the work, but not having actually looked at anything! The average length of time that viewers in museums and galleries spend in front of artworks is 2 seconds. This is surely time enough only to tick the ‘yes I was there’ box, but certainly not long enough to truly open ourselves to experience a work of art.

It is glimpses of essentially human experience that Thornhill offers to us in his powerful and sensitive sculptures. He wants us to stop long enough before them to be affected yet without needing to know for sure “what is it ?”. We are invited to participate in a silent exchange, a conversation that may lead us as much to an increased understanding of our own human experience as of his own. The voice of the artist is distinct and evident in the marks of making and within the decisions he has made. Yet, he leaves us to find the words, our own words, to echo back the experience – if we feel we must.

Thornhill’s journey into his art and his expressive self has been a similarly quiet and solitary one. He seems to have had no real choice in this; it was who he was to be as an artist. As a young artist he experienced a sense of isolation from those of his generation and from the prevailing influences of the galleries and museums where they were being celebrated. He realized that he had no interest in a strategic or careerist model and that he needed to develop his own criteria for creativity rather than emulating others. This approach demanded a solitude and a rigour in his practice that has allowed him to develop a clarity of vision that is uncluttered by reference to other artists or to art history. The sense of seeing without cerebration that he asks of his viewer he has developed in himself through a practice of meditation which he continues to this day.

A long self-scrutinising involvement with various therapies has inspired his leaning towards spontaneity, ambiguity and multiplicity with regard to content. These became key elements in his working method and use of process. The aspect of interaction and tension in relationships that is a recurring subject of the sculptures Thornhill makes, was developed through his interest in improvised performance and through participating in group work and experimental movement. The engagement with the physical, exploring leaning and giving weight was fuelled by a curiosity and a desire to reveal and exploit the essential rawness, strength and malleability of the clay. He responds at an almost primal level to a material that has been dug out of the earth. His excitement at shaping and pulling form out of it has not dimmed with age or with repeated use.

His employment of improvisation, surrender to process and the subsequent challenge to the materials mean he is constantly returning to probe essential questions about the process of making sculpture: form, flow, balance, mass. These are things which other makers respond to and learn from and perhaps this explains his stature as both a teacher of sculpture and as an artist who deeply touches those who take the time to let his work speak to them.

One might see this journey of exploration as analogous with the journey of a life lived. It has revealed not only his philosophy about making sculpture but his thinking about the experience of living a life as artist, teacher and father. These preoccupations are evidenced in the themes that he returns to in his work – communication, relationship, and the outrageousness of communal violence and of war.

Thornhill’s work may now appear to belong to another age. He has persisted in attachment to the figure long after sculpture moved to a point where the human presence would more frequently be asserted in its absence, or by implication, with the viewer taking centre stage. His way of working no longer seems contemporary in an age where the creative act is often an illustration of a concept, and our understanding of the world is received through the mediated reflections of technology.

He admits that his work is unashamedly at variance with fashionable trends in the contemporary art scene. Certainly he has little interest in its vagaries and has neither courted nor received much acknowledgement from the art establishment. He probably will not be appearing soon in Tate Modern or Frieze Magazine. And this is a shame, for it is work of beauty, vitality, authenticity and resonance for both the viewer and for fellow artists. These very qualities mean that it is art that is ageless and attests to the dilemmas, conflicts and yet exquisite moments of aliveness and wonder that constitute a life truly lived.

The sensory capacities that preoccupy Thornhill are, he asserts, latent in everyone and ironically have become suppressed through education. His works unlock a door for us all and return us, by arousing involuntary sensibilities, to a knowing we had forgotten we had. Thornhill has taught since his early days as a potter and even then was concerned to pass on to students not merely the technical knowledge required in making but an emerging philosophy, an attitude to creativity. As he made discoveries in his studio these were passed on to students. Less about imparting knowledge, his teaching aims to introduce students to the very feel of adventure into the unknown. The conversation continues to this day.

Artists such as Thornhill are essential to our culture despite not hitting the art headlines or necessarily even earning much from their art. They contribute to the zeitgeist, they underline the importance of the realisation and development of personal creativity and support the shaping of another generation of artists.

Uninterested in making grand claims or gestures, Thornhill has followed a dedicated and lifelong practice that has explored and tested his capabilities and the mysterious process of creativity. This has produced possibilities for the artist and the viewer that are mutually informing and nourishing. Through his sensitively wrought yet sturdy sculptures he expresses the anguish and joy both of making art and of living. It is a legacy of great vision and generosity; one for us not only to be moved by, but one for which as an example we may perhaps come to be grateful.

Clare Carswell MA (RCA) Oxford, January 2008

© Copyright Alan Thornhill and authors 2013. All rights reserved