Terri Thomas

Terri ThomasTerri Thomas is a remarkably skilled realist painter/conceptual artists and one of the most cerebral Third Wave feminists I have ever met. Her work tackles a myriad of theoretical issues including agency, legacy, birthright, artist as avatar, self-commodification, performance vs. artifact, temporality, beauty as an aesthetic virtue of the work rather than the subject, highbrow vs. lowbrow and, yes, erotic taboo. 

But don’t let the elicit nature of the the artwork fool you, Thomas’ investigation of the human condition through the optic of sexuality is about far more than mere exploitive titillation. While a viewer might first be drawn to the work by it’s explicit imagery, fairly quickly they realize that the artist has gone far beyond pornography to courageously reveal both psychological and sociological implications of female sexual agency as it informs identity creation. The work has a deliberately disquieting quality and reveals both the cognitive dissonance of the artist and the audience in response to the issues raised by such a frank and unfiltered examination of a subject that is too often either avoided as taboo or self-indulgently exploited as narcissistic self-promotion. 

Having spent a great deal of time, over a number of years, listening to Terri talk about her artwork, I am always struck by the fact that conversations with her invariably center around ideas. Given the apparent self-referential nature of her paintings, it is indeed striking how little she refers to herself in these discussions. In fact, though she is a model for her own work, it would be a mistake for the viewer to interpret the work as simply autobiographical or self portraiture. Indeed, she is fascinated by the process of character creation, including the character of the artist, which in the case of Terri, may or may not resemble the identity of Thomas herself. Despite their clarity of execution and their explicit depictions, there is an intriguing ambiguity in Thomas’ work as she encourages the viewer to consider more questions than they may be comfortable answering, even to themselves. 

These questions are not necessarily all directed at the dark recesses of the Freudian imagination. Thomas’ work challenges harsh distinctions in aesthetic dogmas. Her artwork defies easy categorization. It is neither modern nor traditional, it is both figurative and conceptual. The artist refers to historicism but eschews any sense of anachronism. Her artwork is aware of pinup illustration but challenges its conventions. Thomas’ imagery and use of materials both invokes pop culture’s glamor but simultaneously mocks its fatuousness. The artwork can at once be viscerally pornographic yet militantly feminist. Through her artwork, Thomas questions the sufficiency of the culture’s social mechanisms of information transmission including how the ideas of taboo, political correctness, shame, rhetorical obfuscation and masculine heteronormative pornography complicate, corrupt and confound the inter-generational transmission of sexual knowledge. In order to explore these issues, her work strides painting, sculpture and performance.

While she admits to being fascinated by dualities, Terri Thomas’s oeuvre suggests that she is not satisfied with mere paradox for it’s own sake. She presents opposing dualities in an effort to question their underlying presumptions that cause us to perceive them as delimiting frames of reference that may have less intrinsic validity than we presume. Her work encourages thoughtful viewers to propose alternate Third Wave memes that may provide a continuity of concept which might alleviate the cognitive dissonance her art tends to inspire. In this way, she avoids the epistemological pitfalls of both tradition and Postmodernism. She simultaneously proposes, and encourages her audience to propose, viable options to conventional modes of thought about their expectations of fine art as well as sexuality and identity.

More Terri Thomas from the Austin Chronicle here and here.