Jeff Thomson has been creating magnificent artworks out of corrugated iron for more than three decades. This chosen medium of Thomson’s art creates an appreciation and a greater awareness of his ability to transform his materials, indirectly, it also extends our awareness of the important, and still undervalued, legacy of the politics and agenda of conceptual art from the early 1980s. It may have transformed its appearance, but its spirit and principles still inform the energy of the best of Thomson’s work as it continues to makes its way into our lives – even in 2018.
As a student at the Elam School of Fine Art from 1977 to 1981, Thomson was present at the end of an era in which conceptual and performance art were highly influential. In Auckland, this included artists such as Jim Allen, Phil Dadson and Bruce Barber, whose work challenged the role of the art gallery as the dominant institution for the experience of art. These artists worked beyond the gallery in public performances and installations that directly engaged with the wider community.
Thomson graduated in 1981 and his earliest arts projects were similarly conceived and initiated in public spaces, beginning with an extensive walk from Dunedin to Christchurch. Woodward’s essay details a trek whose impact on Thomson’s art appears to have been profound, discovering the detail of the experience of life in rural New Zealand; its roadsides, typography, weathered surfaces and the unique qualities of the objects and materials in homes and buildings.
A lot Thomson’s art represents the values of middle-class New Zealanders is not without credibility. By its very nature, the “do-it-yourself” home-handyman lifestyle exemplified in the material of corrugated iron makes it difficult to avoid such observations. Furthermore, in revealing that a substantial volume of Thomson’s work has been generated through public commissions, the catalogue essay by Dr. Robin Woodward confirms that here is an artist who responds to the values of the wider community. For this reason, a public artwork like Thomson’s 5.5 metre Gumboot in Taihape makes perfect sense, commemorating popular perceptions about New Zealand’s identity or the public toilets in Helensville.