Marie Thibeault at A Room for Painting, San Francisco (Essay for catalog)
by Mark Johnson
Since her move to begin teaching at Cal State Long Beach twenty years ago - Marie Thibeault has steadily built a reputation as one of “the strongest painters in the Southland.” Recently, writers including Peter Frank, Constance Mallinson and Bondo Wyszpolski - in publications ranging from the LA Weekly to Art in America - have thoughtfully engaged with her hard-hitting abstract works that feature painterly complexity and poetic power.
Thibeault’s new work, among the strongest of her career, relates full circle to the works she exhibited with a splash in San Francisco thirty years ago (when I first fell in love with her painting). In 1979 Marie Thibeault began showing a series of colorfully shocking and original large format drawings at alternative space galleries including Southern Exposure and Supplies, works created with an under-drawing of rough, day-glow spraypaint crosshatching. This early use of the spraycan in fine art is significant historically, as is Thibeault’s role as muse in the films of ‘Minimal Man’ Patrick Miller, a figure in the Bay Area industrial music scene. Thibeault emerged at virtually the same moment that other significant women abstract painters began exhibiting in Northern California, including Deborah Orapallo, Irene Pijoan and Sabina Ott. But Thibeault’s 1979 drawings documented big-impact disasters, including a contemporaneous flood/fire in Missouri, and a 1921 accidental blast in a munitions factory in Berlin. In these works and in those from the years that followed, she sometimes worked in a palette of hellish hot pinks and acid greens. Thibeault also drew apocalyptic inspiration from events including the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear power plant partial core meltdown in Pennsylvania, and later, the 1984 Bhopal gas disaster, where thousands died following the release of toxic methyl isocyanate from a Union Carbide pesticide plant in India. These technically original and formally complicated works were also highly emotionally engaging - they communicated large-scale, environmental devastation on an intimate level of personal, physical and emotional pain. They evoked a palpable sense of wounding, and fracturing below the surface.
In her new work, Thibeault explores Katrina as metaphor – an exemplar of both the impact of global warming and institutionalized poverty in America. A few images emerge from the seeming chaos of irregular and richly colored grids in these works: an old yellow house in the background, upper right quadrant of Remain, looks as if it was being smeared away by the impact of a nuclear blast – an image embedded in our collective memories from the early films of the Nevada test site. But at the center of the painting’s composition, a shredded jumble of flattened timbers is all that remains of what might have been a similar structure that has been swept off its foundation. Thibeault’s push-pull layering of drawing and zoning of color extends the legacy of Hans Hofmann’s colorism and bears a relationship to the multiplicity of analytic cubism. Painting can have a metaphysical relationship to time; when looking at an object created in the past, the viewer experiences its imagery in a continuous present. Such past and present dimensions operate in Thibeault’s vision, but an impending future is also implied.
And yet, while the ostensible subject of these works is compelling, Thibeault’s is an essentially abstract language. And while the new paintings return to the environmental devastation of the earlier series, they are strikingly different in their fuller exploration of the range of painting. Painting is often slammed as dead because its formal subtlety seems too difficult or dull to appreciate. But the richly worked paintings of Marie Thibeault demonstrate how painting can be symphonic and spectacular. Her delicate balancing of opposing perspectives and colors evidences her effort to find imagery, worthy of her sources. In so doing, Marie Thibeault’s painting emboldens us for struggle; it reminds us that no change to our collective course will be easy, that every change has to be fought for, to be won.
Marie Thibeault at A Room for Painting, San Francisco (Essay for catalog)
by George Lawson
For the seventh hanging in the room for painting I am pleased to be showing recent canvases by Marie Thibeault, with a selection of the work coming to us directly from her 2009 exhibition at the Torrance Art Museum. Thibeault, formally of the Bay Area and now based in Los Angeles, is Professor of Art at California State University Long Beach and a recipient of multiple grants from that institution. In her recent work, Thiibeault has been using source images of natural and man-made disasters, such as Hurrican Katrina, often from newspaper clippings, as her starting point–catalysts to paintings marked by improvised gestural overlay, sophisticaed color, and a flatly layered, thicketed space. She is a particular master of the scumble, an open brushwork that scratches through the opaque surface layer of paint to reveal and mix with the color of underlying layers, creating harmonics much as a transparent glaze would do but with more incident inthe marking. Her handling keeps the space active and ambigous and serves to integrate color and drawing. Not only is Thibeault's spactial depth hard to pin down, but so is the drection of movement of her compositions, constellations that seem to be held in abeyance at the moment they could either explode or implode. Although the subject matter of ther painiting is ostensibily chaos, the formal coalescene of Thibeault's over-all image, and the harmonics of her color speak to recovery and an order more generative than deconstructed. In the end, these are the images of a resilient optimism.
– George Lawson
Director, room for painitng room for paper
MARIE THIBEAULT: SYMPHONIC ENTROPY ( catalogue essay)
by Peter Frank
Reflection does not withdraw from the world towards the unity of consciousness as the world's basis; it steps back to watch the forms of transcendence fly up like sparks from a fire.... Jacques Merleau-Ponty
The burgeoning ecological crisis is not called “global” for nothing. It affects every one of us, on every level imaginable. Indeed, its pervasiveness is one of its most pernicious aspects, thwarting as it does the efforts of our fractious species to change even the most reversible of the effects we ourselves have on it. The dispersed sense of chaos and disintegration that pervades Marie Thibeault’s paintings embodies this sense of slow but total collapse – and also captures, and mediates, its weird, fearsome, yet seductive beauty.
There is a part of us that revels in our own doom. Our present-day taste for horror movies and post-apocalyptic tales (which in fact premise the survival of a very few) can be cast in the context of the Sublime, theorized as far back as the Baroque era – and of course, hardly further back to detailed descriptions of Hell and the Days of Wrath. We don’t relish Eliot’s whimper; we want the world to end with a bang. Thibeault’s canvases imagine – and document – a condition of decadence that may give us bang for our buck, but postulates that the whimper factor will finally prevail.
Katrina is a case in point. Manifesting serious anxiety about the end of the world – that is, the implosion of the biosphere – Thibeault, not surprisingly, alit on the 2005 hurricane that devastated the American Gulf Coast. Katrina provided her (and us) both dramatic imagery and cautionary tale. Tsunamis wipe out coastal villages directly, but the hurricane’s flood resulted from the failure of man-made structures. Natural fury may have devastated southern Mississippi, but the destruction of New Orleans testifies to nothing more than human venality and shortsightedness.
Thibeault is not finger-wagging in these paintings, however; she is simply looking into the future. She is also marveling, as a visual artist, at the spectacle of nature’s violent reclamation. Of course, she need not go even as far as Louisiana to witness it; based in San Pedro, she lives a short drive from recent conflagration, and on the very edge of daily atmospheric corrosion. Her everyday landscape, whether on the front page of her local paper or out the window of her car, looms with a dismal beauty. The explosive vistas, dotted with instability and degradation, that have become the staple of Thibeault’s art are as much personal testimony as second-hand elaboration, as much document as fantasy. Call them variations on a theme.
And, indeed, that theme, and those variations, have something of a sonic resonance. Thibeault does not necessarily aspire to the condition of music; she claims no synesthetic response, nor any ekphrastic program. Her language remains visual and her concern remains planetary. But you can’t help but regard the breadth of these ambitious renditions – the balanced complexity of their surface incident, the nuanced vividness of their palette, the reverberation of their skewed but persuasive fictive space – as composed in some other dimension beside the optic. Perhaps you can smell the decay; perhaps you can feel the acid in the air. And perhaps you can hear the growing cacophony, the building roar, of topography and biology slouching towards entropy. Thibeault establishes a certain harmony in this densifying dissonance, both by marveling in its overarching sublimity and by finding, and bringing forth, so many of its myriad particulars (a house, a truck, a tree, a pool, a field, a runway). It is Thibeault’s ability to orchestrate these micro- and macro-aspects into cohesive wholes – so cohesive that they hold together visually while conveying the sensation of dissolution – that rings true beyond the eye.