Tom Polo: When windows are worlds

Tom Polo has long been fascinated by the enigma of human imagination. Through his highly suggestive painted compositions, he offers a window into vast interior worlds, waiting to be explored.

Words: Micheal Do

Photography: Jacquie Manning

ON THE SUBJECT of art, a painting is often described as a window into another world. And while we can easily imagine ourselves inhabiting a landscape painting, or sitting across from a subject in a portrait, can the same be said for abstract painting? In a strict sense, the term describes art that has separated or withdrawn a presence from something — making use of shape, colour, and gesture to represent an object or setting other than what we can directly see. So then, does abstraction offer a window into an interior world, a warped sense of the outside world, or perhaps something altogether different?

These are some of the questions Sydney-based painter Tom Polo explores in his practice. Having originally studied Psychology and Sociology alongside his Fine Arts degree, Polo has long been interested in understanding the enigma of human imagination. For more than 10 years, this artist has been unpacking the methods of human communication through painting, with particular interest in how personas, masks, speech and body language facilitate relationships.

Italians often speak of sprezzatura, a studied nonchalance that makes it seem that one’s actions are done without effort and without almost any thought. And while his work may initially suggest this spirit, Polo as an artist and personality is much more complex. With a self-deprecating charm, he reveals that his paintings often begin in the form of fragmented recollections, overheard snatches of conversation, or small scraps of words float- ing through windows on a hazy summer day. He draws from these everyday fragments, intuitively stitching them together to form the narratives of his paintings.

However, Polo is never obvious or direct in his approach. His compositions are highly suggestive, asking the viewer to suppose, dream and imagine the possibilities within his painted scenes. In this way, Polo’s practice is highly respectful of the viewers’ capacity to contribute and, in a way, coproduce a work of art by deducing a personal understanding.

At Melbourne gallery STATION’s 2018 pop-up exhibition in Woollhara, Polo created a series of large canvases, propped up by theatre backings like those found on stages. He describes each work as forming a chapter within a larger narrative, leading the viewer through a maze of meaning. A kneeling figure, reminiscent of a dog tends to a well-heeled foot suspended in mid-air in ornamental ears. A carnivalesque figure, complete with a muddy matcha-moss coloured bouffant, attempts to climb over a mound. Within these canvases, colours, texture and allusion swirl together, delighting the eye and stirring the spirit. The push and pull of colour and the interplay between light and dark of these compositions sit halfway between deadpan and eloquence.

This unique balance is the entry point for Polo’s satisfyingly ambiguous and open-ended practice. As I describe this quality to Polo, he reminds me that it’s this lightness of touch that is so crucial in underscoring a more serious intent: a reminder that things like the trivial passing conversations in life actually give life its meaning.

As a contemporary painter, Polo interrogates the changing ways in which audiences are looking at paintings. In late 2018, he embarked on a major grand tour of Europe, anchored by a solo exhibition in Belgium and a residency at Palazzo Monti just outside Milan, Italy. During the residency he encountered great historical and contemporary European artists including, Maurizio Cattelan, Michelangelo Pistoletto and Louise Bourgeois, who were curated into a variety of theatrical palazzos, town squares and purpose-built spaces. These encounters served as a reminder about the contextual possibilities for art display and how particular variances within it can work with and against the viewer to intriguing effect.

In discussing his presentation for the survey show The National 2019: New Australian Art, Polo explains how some of these ideas will trickle into his commissioned large-scale works. At the time of writing, the artist is planning 40 works of paper and a monumental wall painting, anchored by five large canvases in the entrance court of the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

The work, titled when windows are walls, neatly captures the pleasure Polo takes in both looking and representing scenes to be looked at. As he describes the project, it’s clear that Polo’s love for the possibilities of the medium is clearly matched by his desire to push boundaries of painting, while bringing an increasing respectful audience with him.

For Polo’s upcoming solo exhibition with Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, he is planning an immersive installation of site-specific and standalone painting. In a similar vein to his works at The National, he tells me to think big and dramatic: a total takeover of the Sydney gallery’s larger space.

American literary critic Elizabeth Hardwick once wrote, “making a living is nothing; the great difficulty is making a point, making a difference”. And from my few precious moments with him, there couldn’t be truer words to describe the world of, and the whirlwind that is, Tom Polo.


Director, Parramatta Artist Studios and curator of Primavera 2017: Young Australian Artists, Museum of Contemporary Art, Australia

“I have great admiration for Tom Polo’s sharp intuition as an artist, an intuition that informs the mark-making in his paintings, but also an intuitive mark that he is willing to question. His distinctive works unravel human existence with a layered meaning that wavers between clarity and a facade of clarity. Whilst a pointed humour is always lurking nearby.

“Tom’s sharp intuition also relates to his career. He sustains a strong awareness of the arts sector, both at home and internationally, which allows him to locate and define his place within it. His commitment to contextualising his work across Australia and internationally is phenomenal.

“Working together on the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Primavera 2017 was a highlight, with studio visits prolific with possibility and an excitement to take risk, which compelled a new conceptual tangent in his work. Tom is a rarity – a considered artist, an artist’s artist and an artist who finds meaning across Australia and the world.”

Director, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery

“I first saw Tom Polo’s work at the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Primavera in 2017. I was impressed by his dynamic and abstract paintings hung on a large yellow wall. On the other side, Tom postered the wall with these oversized crumpled masks that referenced the Bocca della Verità (The Mouth of Truth) in Rome, Italy. Each mask had such strange and evocative expressions. There was such freedom and theatre to those works. Tom has a real freshness and that made an impact on me.

“I’ve been working with my artists for a long time and I love each one of them. At the gallery, we don’t have this idea of ‘a stable’. It is difficult to pigeonhole my artists into one aesthetic movement, nor define our gallery into a single category. In that sense, Tom fits right in. We’ve been workshopping an idea for an exhibition for a while. Tom has such inventiveness. His ideas for the show sound exciting and I’m sure the installation will be quite spectacular.

“Since the start of Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in 1982, I have always supported young artists like Tom and will continue to foster their careers.”

This article was originally published in Art Collector issue 88, APR – JUN 2019. 


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