Ted Thirlby: Regeneration
On ViewEast End Arts
March 25–May 6, 2023
The North Fork of Long Island maintains a quiet art presence compared to its South Fork cousin, which is home to the art-saturated Hamptons, a celebrated region known for its long-standing museums and galleries. But less turned out to be more during the COVID-19 pandemic, with the local community inventing untraditional ways to make art events and programming happen, uplifting spirits amidst epidemic siege. Fresh energy surging through hamlets from Riverhead to Orient sparked upbeat, masked studio pop-ups, bold new exhibitions in once-traditional art venues, and interdisciplinary collaborations. East End Arts in Riverhead, among the organizations supporting the creative community on the North Fork, envisioned more of an arts district rather than a single arts center, one with a broader and more diverse reach, inclusive of emerging and well-practiced artists. Regeneration, Ted Thirlby’s solo exhibition at EEA aptly represents how that effort has enlivened and redefined the future legacy of Long Island’s “other Fork.”
Thirlby enjoyed an impressive, fast start within the New York City avant-garde art scene during the seventies and eighties. But, like many artists with growing families, he suspended his full-time art career, returning to it after retiring his successful Manhattan construction company. He creates sculptural reliefs on desiccated plywood boards—rife with knotty holes, nails, old paint, and cement—rescued from construction sites, storing them beneath the deck of his house where they continue to decay and weather-stain. Ultimately, they morph into haunting forms, longing, it seems, for someone to reveal the inner spirit of material that has lived many lives.
Wu Wei (2015), meaning “effortless action” in Chinese, is the progenitor of all the works in this exhibition. Thirlby has described finding the plywood with an air conditioner sitting on top of it. “It left a square shape on its raw wood and red-stained surface, a phallic form incised within the square,” he notes. “I studied it for a long time, wondering how to capture the energy of the piece.” With innate, minimalist sensibility and gentle sensitivity to his “rescue,” Thirlby incised a fresh arc, encircling the found interventions imposed on natural grain. He added transparent color washes and tried some Japanese brushstrokes, which he afterwards washed off. And then, “oops, there it was,” he says, the “It” being a physical realization of the mystery of temporal and primordial time.
Thirlby’s deeply spiritual works sometimes revisit art historical expressions of faith. The Mocking of Christ (2017), for example, borrows its title from a fifteenth-century painting by Fra Angelico, a Florentine Dominican monk. Challenged by the old master’s simple geometries and spare iconographic forms, Thirlby choreographed a personal minimal language echoing the visual and psychic tension of the Renaissance masterpiece. After applying a soft gray wash to a jagged plywood panel, he coordinated a delicate dance between a pale arc and a halo-like circle along a thin, white line, their lyric harmony aggressively interrupted by an aggressive bullet-shaped ellipse. Effectively abstracting themes of fragility, suffering, and perseverance, Thirlby’s ravaged plywood presents a form torn from its source and abandoned, but resurrected as fine art.
Ellipses, recurrent motifs in Thirlby’s works, also appear in Root Chakra (2018), their dynamic shapes alternately suggesting monoliths, or a contrast between darkness and light. In Sekhem (2023), named for a modality associated with the Egyptian goddess of healing, Thirlby infused sexual energy as a metaphor for regeneration. For this work, he chose a fragmented piece of plywood, split down its center in resemblance to a birth canal. He painted this wooden canvas a vibrant blue and drew within its cleavage an ellipse leading a circle through its opening, embedding within nature’s fertility cycle the wonder of imaginative creativity.
Dan Welden, the renowned Long Island-based painter and master printmaker, encouraged Thirlby to take his sculpture even further, and transform his work into prints. He mentored Thirlby through a struggle to retain the integrity of the “motherwood” within multiple layers of color on paper. Using scraps from wood relief works as printing plates for monoprints, Thirlby made works like Red Moon Rising (2022), Cleave (2022), and Blue Segments (2022), relying on templates of hand-drawn ellipses to explore different iterations of shape through variations of color and placement. A deteriorated fragment from a larger piece of ragged-edged plywood sired Ruby Drop (2022) and Vena Cava (2022). These delicate translucent images hold an intriguing conversation with their apparent plywood parent, Vitruvius in Shadow (2020), a heavy, muscular piece with overlapping torn edges. Their juxtapositions bear witness to the way in which Thirlby welcomes the unpredictable surprises of a new process, and then pursues them to reinvent the expressiveness of form.