ART / In The Studio: Making marks on the memory: Estelle Thompson paints abstract works of fragile beauty in the East End of London. Iain Gale met her

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The Independent Culture
Estelle Thompson's studio is a place of memory. On the wall her iridescent abstractions explore a language of collective memory, while from pillars hang more tangible relics - the bright strips of tape used to create the coloured grids that articulate her most recent works: large, complex canvases which contrast with the 12in squares for which she is better known. She explains the reasons for her change of scale.

'The large ones are much less centralised. Whereas you experience the small pictures head on - the gaze is very fixed - in the new ones the eye moves across the picture. The fields of colour in the small pictures wouldn't work on large canvases so I divided them up to set up the same tension.'

Working now simultaneously on large and small, Thompson is aware that both possess a fragile beauty, but winces at the word 'decorative'. 'Sometimes I find them decorative, but I really think that the decorative element in my painting is redundant. Any pattern or mark on the canvas has to work in a functional way.'

Thompson has always shown such rigour in the care she takes with her work. But this does not preclude experiment. Her starting point at art school was figuration but gradually 'the figures just dropped off' and she turned to landscapes. 'I looked at the St Ives bunch and I was interested in the history of British landscape art. The colouring of my early abstracts was very Cornish and some of them do suggest landscape space, but I wouldn't say that I'm inclined to naturalistic light and space. I'm dissatisfied with them being read as a particular thing. I need ambiguity.'

Ambiguous as they might be, many of her paintings do evoke the forms of a commonplace sign language. 'For a long time my motifs suggested natural forms. But it's not a conscious symbolic lift. They're very intuitively resolved.' It is perhaps this intuition that makes her work so hard to talk about. It demands not the language of art criticism but of poetry. These are transcendental images and if they're about anything physical, it's light. Created with layers of size, gesso and glazes of paint, they evoke the mystical luminosity of a Renaissance Madonna.

Thompson agrees. 'Artists like Bellini are startlingly relevant to me. They show how light can effect emotion. Their paintings are imbued with humanity, a response to beauty and an understanding of tragedy. They're a spiritual response to the world and in the same way I want my paintings to allow you the space and time to reflect.'

Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne, 15 Jan-13 Mar

(Photograph omitted)

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