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The Outsider Art of Tony Fomison

The Outsider Art of Tony Fomison

“A being going through life can become so other to himself as to be another … [Life] happens to you as a result of your condition. Not choice, but - at best - process, and, at worst, shocking, total change. Newness: he had sought a different kind, but this was what he got … bitterness and hatred, all these coarse things. He would enter into his new self; he would be what he had become: loud, stenchy, hideous, outsize, grotesque, inhuman. He was looking for someone to blame. He, too, dreamed; and in his dreams, a shape, a face, was floating closer, ghostly still, unclear ...”
- Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses.

Adjacent to Te Papa's latest mixed-media mishmash, Curious Creatures and Marvellous Monsters, are twelve highly disturbing canvases by Tony Fomison, grouped together under the title Lost in The Dark. The introductory label suggests that Fomison returned from Europe to Christchurch in the late 1960s a “broke, addicted, and cynical outsider,” obsessed by medical deformities, grotesque monsters, and social misfits, and identifying with their tormented existence at the bottom of the social scrap heap. Fomison clearly relished depicting such unsettling creatures because he felt they literally embodied his deep disdain for 'civilised' bourgeois society.

In a recent New York Review of Books article, art historian and critic Sanford Schwartz offered the following definition of 'Outsider Art' - “Put roughly, an outsider artist is a figure who makes a body of work while operating in relative isolation, unaware of, or indifferent to developments in the work of professional artists - though this isn't always the case and it doesn't mean that such a person is unaware of being an artist. Nor should it suggest that an outsider artist is a sporadic creator. Many are mightily prolific. An outsider artist might be someone who resolutely, and perhaps eccentrically wants to live and work only on his or her terms. An outsider artist might be someone who has been institutionalised, or who suffers from physical impairment, which keeps the person at a remove from others.” Sanford provides a provisional description of an artistic category about which many critics remain ambivalent, believing it should be kept in quotation marks to indicate its tentativeness.

Given the admitted elasticity of such parameters, Fomison would certainly qualify in this category. He was born in Christchurch in 1939 and spent his early childhood sketching battle scenes of how to win WWII. When his father returned from active duty he was rewarded for his efforts with a large black box full of paints. Towards the end of his secondary schooling in Christchurch, he participated with Roger Duff in the excavation of a cave used by Maoris in Redcliffs, which eventually lead him to study sculpture, mainly as a means of discovering more about primitive cultures. Initially intent on pursuing a career in ethnology, he ended up studying sculpture at the School of Fine Arts at Canterbury University, where he was taught by Rudi Gopas. During these early years he maintained his early interest in archaeology, compiling a number of photographic essays.

Fomison pursued a highly idiosyncratic vision in a contemporary artistic climate that placed great emphasis on 'coolness' and 'intellectualism,' usually within a highly formal abstract manner - “I was busy protecting the as yet unborn baby of my painting by doing sculpture. I was at art school and I didn't know I was being taught by the landscape.” Concentrating on drawing, he began by copying early Picasso and School of Pairs works, but it was not until 1961 that he began to paint seriously. In 1963 he received an Arts Council Travel Grant to Europe, where he lived and travelled for three years. During this time he did very little sustained work, mainly absorbing classical painting and sculpture. It was only after being hospitalised after a drug overdose in London that he resumed painting, often copying old masterworks that had impressed him on his travels in Spain.

Repatriated in 1967, Fomison returned to Christchurch, where he discovered a renewed sense of purpose. He devoted his time to carefully modeling contours, preferring subjects that provided an opportunity for concentrated forms, such as photographs of aged or grotesque faces and book illustrations of skin diseases. After several years leading a peripatetic existence around Christchurch, during which he produced his first large paintings of reaching and searching hands against black backgrounds, Fomison moved to Auckland, where he rediscovered the wealth of Polynesian culture that had fascinated him in his formative years. His work was first shown at Auckland's New Vision Gallery in 1972 which consisted of both copies of old masters and new black and white images derived from institution inmates and fair-ground gurners amongst others.

Around this time, Fomison also struck up a long and close friendship with Colin McCahon and helped to revive traditional Tā moko tattooing. He was himself tattooed with a traditional Samoan pe'a by master tattooist Sua Sulu'ape Paulo II, a privilege accorded to only a few pakeha. In 1985 he was the inaugural recipient of the Rita Angus Resiedncy and media reports stated that he intended to spend his time in Wellington developing his contacts with the local Samoan community. He died five years later, at the age of fifty, during the 150th anniversary commemoration of the Treaty of Waitangi.

One of the main influences that surface in Fomison's portraits can be traced back to his early adolescent explorations. As a dedicated and informed wanderer among the Maori petroglyphs of the central South Island, Fomison made many tracings and evolved his own chronology of stylistic development. This avid interest in ancient Pacific art forms culminated in a year as assistant ethnologist at Canterbury Museum, then overflowed into his own sculptures and paintings of heads. Their distended ears, lips, and noses clearly derive from Polynesian types, an influence that was fully absorbed and utilised in constructing his highly personal approach to painting the human face. The same rhythms that Gauguin found in Tahitian carving can be found in the primitive mythic quality of Fomison's work, enhanced by shallow relief carving, elongated features, and surface flatness.

In terms of colour and tone, the initial impression from the current exhibition at Te Papa is one of monochromatic black and whites, but burnt umbers, browns, and muddy yellows also contrast with creams, greys, and whites, all unified by Fomison's rugged chiaroscuro of glazes. Fomison's portraits are primarily concerned with a central figure emerging from a primal darkness, seemingly drenched in primitive and private symbolism. They are imbued with a sense of mystery and oracular potency, strangely reminiscent of Thomas Rowlandson's and James Gilray's exaggerated caricatures. But these archetypal symbols of the search for self identity are firmly welded to a very modern conception of social alienation. The images themselves, including madmen and priests, prophets and pilgrims, saints and sinners, seem part of the painter's inner world. In plumbing the depths of such images directly - literally 'head on,' - Fomison ranged over a wide variety of subjects. He delved deeply into the mythology surrounding the image of the Fool/Jester, enlarging its already rich traditions to suit his own ends. Thus the belled cap of the Fool in Hilltop Watcher is transmuted by the painter's alchemy into a bizarre horned skull, the living helmet of a Guardian figure. His visionary portraits of lunatics, werewolves, jesters, and guardians recall the kind of fantastic imagery produced by nineteenth-century Romantic outsiders as William Blake and Richard Dadd.

The figures in these portraits are participants in a drama of 'otherness' that Fomison clearly relished and with which he strongly identified. In interviews, he often talked about mediaeval Spanish sculpture, which he felt preserved “icons concerned with human fate.” Although not religious himself, he considered institutionalised belief systems to be reminders “of the need to evolve on the walk through a journey called your life.” In spite of the disturbing nature of many of his paintings, Fomison was conscious that his works must be able to reach a general audience - “I'm painting things that relate to everybody - that are important … Painting is not the most widespread or well placed of the visual arts. It's got overwhelming competition from photography, cinema, and advertising. But it is the meditative visual art; and to get a person to look for more than five minutes at a painting, that's what it's all about.”

The influence of seventeenth-century tenebrist masters is also evident in these paintings. Tenebrism is a style of painting using pronounced chiaroscuro effects in which violent contrasts of light and dark co-exist, and where darkness becomes a dominating feature of the image. Dark, gloomy, and mysterious, the technique was developed to add drama to an image through a spotlight effect, and was especially popular during the Baroque period. Caravagio is generally credited with creating the technique, although it was used earlier by artists such as Albrecht Dürer, Tintoretto, and El Greco, who painted three versions of a composition with a boy, a man, and a monkey grouped in darkness around a single candle flame. Another outstanding exponent of tenebrism was Artemisia Gentileschi (Orazio's daughter and a follower of Caravaggio), who has attracted much interest among modern feminist historians not only because she was one of the few female artists of the Baroque, but also due to her penchant for painting Old Testament scenes featuring strong, assertive women. Although the term is most often applied to seventeenth-century Spanish painters like Francisco Ribalta and Jusepe de Ribera, it is sometimes extended to cover painters in the 'candlelight tradition,' such as Georges de La Tour, Trophime Bigot, Gerrit van Honthorst, and Rembrandt. Further north in Flanders, Adam de Coster was recognized as a leading tenebrist who excelled in painting scenes in which a single candle has its light blocked by an object, and Dutch artist Godfried Schalken painted many candle-lit scenes. These painters, however, were just as interested in the obscured areas of the painting as the spot-lit ones, achieving a mood of stillness and tranquility through their extreme lighting which diffuses gently across much of the picture area.

Fomison pursued exactly the opposite effect, employing tenebrist effects to increase dramatic tension in his canvases. This is particularly apparent in the first two pantings on display, which also illustrate his morbid obsession with disease and pathology. Portrait of a Lag (1970) was inspired by Franceco Ribera's 1620's Christ Embracing Saint Berard. and endows its suffering subject with a similarly saintly aura. Painted while Fomison served a brief sentence in Rolleston prison for drug offences, it is dramatically lit from below, radically distorting the inmate's facial features as though they were reflected in a funhouse mirror, his distended ears, nostrils, and jaws stretched taut across the canvas. Similarly, Carcinoma of the tongue, ulcerative type (1969) features bulging eyes and a tongue pulled out of its subject's mouth to reveal a suppurating ulcer. Again lit from below, malformed and misshapen facial orifices emerge from background shadows as though pulled apart from the inner compositional tension.

In a 1970 interview, Fomison admitted spending periods of his life locked up in prisons and mental wards, where he became a “veritable terror of the bourgeoisie.” He was involved on the fringes of the underground protest movement in Christchurch and his political sympathies were always for the dispossessed. No! (1971) was inspired by a British newspaper story about a blacksmith's protest against a proposed commuter suburb planned for his village. Influenced by the anti-psychiatry theories of RD Laing, he constantly questioned institutional definitions of what constitutes deviance, abnormality, and insanity. He considered painting to be “a symptom, a pimple on the skin of society, a symptom of what society lacks,” and this self diagnosis is nowhere more evident than in three juxtaposed paintings on display at Te Papa. In From a Mark Adams Photo of a Sunnyside Patient (1970) the exaggerated facial wrinkles of an inmate at Christchurch's psychiatric hospital seem to pull her mouth into a tight grimace, repressing whatever inner thoughts or unspoken demons may inhabit her deranged mind. It complements Wildman (1973), in which the werewolf figure depicts another social outcast who refuses to be contained within the normative constraints of 'civilisation.' Facial Hypertrichosis (1970) echoes this theme with a portrait of the Hairy Man of Mandalay, a famous freak show performer of the previous century. Fomison strongly identified with such outsiders, even claiming he was born covered in dark hair (although his mother always denied this). Another example of how Fomison embraced those marginalised by society due to physical deformities and skin diseases is Malaria Victim, New Guinea (1976). A woman of indeterminate age with a melancholy yellow skin tone has been ravaged by malaria, stripped of her hair, and illuminated by contrasting light and dark patches for extra dramatic effect.

Hilltop Watcher (1978) resembles an alien skull or some ghastly creature from Lord of the Rings. The image began life as one of Fomison's Jester figures, but was later overpainted, transmogrifying the original cap into ram-like horns and transforming the Jester into one of his Guardian heads - a traditional folkloric figure designed to protect and preserve the dying wisdom and native traditions of indigenous people. Fomison then rounded the upper corners of the canvas to resemble the headboard of a hospital sickbed. A similarly fatalistic obsession with obliteration and collapse is apparent in Detail for a Dancing Skeleton (1970), which also employs a grinning skull as a grisly memento mori. Fomison based the image on an ad for a magic lantern inside of which a skeleton performed a dance macabre that he discovered in an American horror movie magazine, Monsters of Filmland.

Like Walter Sickert, Fomison saw the potential power in a newspaper photograph (vastly enlarged in No!), and like many addicts and alcoholics, he imagined himself in highly Romantic terms as similarly alien, his fin de siecle Gothic sensibility allowing him great empathy for social outcasts and victims. In a manner comparable to Francis Bacon (an artist whom he deeply admired and the tone of whose work he often replicated), Fomison sometimes culled his images from medical textbooks, as in Study of a hand (1970), which is inscribed as being from 'pge. 384 Roxburgh's Common Skin Diseases, 12 Edition 1961.' He employed anatomical studies as a sounding board for normality and was clearly fascinated by all aspects of deformity. Less interested than Bacon in portraying sustained cruelty, the abnormal aspects of pathology supplied him with sufficiently new territory to be explored. Although widely acknowledged for his technical virtuosity during his lifetime, his work only attained iconic status after his premature vodka-induced death. Among such gifted contemporaries as Bill Hammond, Tony de la Tour, and printmaker Jason Grieg, Fomison distinguished himself as a highly idiosyncratic and individual artist, and could have become wealthy, had his demons not prevented him from investing his income wisely. In his near monochrome oil painting on black hessian, he staked out a territory of genuine originality.”

All of Fomison's portraits from this period depict distended faces and body parts against dark nocturnal backgrounds, inhabiting a subterranean world populated largely by oneiric spirits who would be perfectly at home in short story by H.P. Lovecraft. This ghoulish fascination with the torments of physical and mental suffering connects directly to the Christ-like features of many of his figures, whose penetrating black, blank stares emerge from vacant spaces and flattened surfaces. Fomison's lifelong interest in religious iconography is evident in Salvator Mundi (1970) and Christ (1976). The puny, misshapen hands and elongated nose of the Christ figure was inspired by Antonello da Messina's Christ Blessing (1465), while the latter's faded face is eaten into by sombre darkness, a ghostly symbol of human suffering. In both images, little attempt is made to suggest a sense of formal perspective and redemption seems a far distant prospect.

Like the sculptor he was originally trained to be, Fomison was much more interested in abutting planes, rounded surfaces, and sickly shapes lit from below, like kids at Halloween shining flashlights under their chins. Although indebted to tenebrism, a fundamental problem of the technique is also evident in many of these backgrounds. For an artist like Fomison, who painstakingly built up layer upon layer of thin glazes, tension can be lost if the paint surface contains areas that remain comparatively inactive. Strongly significant personal imagery, imbued with psychological depth and a powerful hypnotic quality, endow his figures with a mythopoeic grandeur, but they are often marred by surrounding areas of dead paint. Nevertheless, there is a macabre morbidity to these paintings that remains profoundly moving. My advice is to visit on a weekday morning, if possible, when families with shrieking kids and wailing infants in tow are less likely to be funneled through the dimly-lit and potentially terrifying exhibition space.

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