Helen Carey - Director, Centre Culturel Irlandais, Paris


In the Francis Ford Coppola's 1974 movie The Conversation, which takes place in an American city, possibly Washington, the conversation in question takes place between a man and a woman in a plaza at lunchtime, and is taped from long distance. Dramatic and fatal plans are overheard. In this plaza, regular people, people with secrets, white collar workers are having lunch, making clandestine arrangements, wandering aimlessly in a break from the office, chatting, silent, planning. The impression is one of silence, strangely, as many people are going their ways with all the debris of life falling about them. The truth and endurance of the movie is that the drama is in fact unfolding under our eyes, and is invisible. In Gro Thorsen's paintings, there are similar feelings, one gets similar impressions, that the full story is in front of us but we do not see it.

Her work is finely composed to reveal all and nothing. Her linen canvas provides a grainey texture from within which her characters emerge. The colour is muted. It is a masked background, like a fog, and the characters are mere marks drawing from traditions including early expressionism, finding resonance in early Rothko, particularly the subway paintings. But Thorsen's people become marks, in some cases, a couple of brushstrokes, not more than a mere suggestion of living, breathing presence, but that is enough. Her application of paint is smooth yet her finish is textured. Her people are vertical interrupting a horizontal grain and brushstroke, casting shadows at oblique angles, drawing the viewer in. Her white shirts gleam out of the muted colours in the way pressed shirts do in the grey cities. Her people look stressed, we do not know where they have been.

Thorsen's characters are urban and contemporary. They lie within our understandings of contemporary cities. The painter lives in London having been born in Norway in 1966. She attended Wimbledon School of Art in London, following Bergen School of Art in Norway. Her people, like Londoners, are busy, faceless people, rushing past a background which is blurred and in which the characters whistle past. The viewer has a fleeting glimpse, barely more than an impression of who the person is, not more.

Thorsen has claimed silent film as an influence and it is easy to see the stone faces of the silent era in her work. Also the pace of the silent actors where the background is incidental to the frenzied action masks the detail of the background deeply worked up, again a feature of the silent era. However, Thorsen's palette claims her as quintessentially Scandinavian, muted and luminous, seeing the lights of the northern landscape as an influence as well as the shapes of her people. Thus the twin influences of the contemporary white collar London Nordic landscape colour are mergd, outlined, with uneasy results.

One of the features of Thorsen's canvas is the expanse within which the action takes place: regardless of the numbers of people in her work, her vast grainey expanses - although her paintings are not always big, the expanse seems vast - are claustrophobic as we home in on the tiny figures with long shadows. There is just enough detail to know those people are there, to know something of their lives, to see the patterns that they unconsciously form, to know they are like us. Two together are conspiratorial, some are walking away, some are disappointed, are faded, some of her marks are indistinct, some are sharply drawn, all give character in a way that shows control of the paint; implying control of what we are allowed to see of these people.

Blink and you will miss some crucial detail. Or else, as they come closer, they are not who you thought they were. Thorsen can make her viewer uneasy, never sure where it will end up. Some drama where the beauty that is implied might not be as we thought, that there may be something uneasy in the apparent symmetry, some secret unable to be revealed. In this the Norwegian dramatic heritage finds full force. Thorsen is a painter who will reveal less and less, become even more compelling for the viewer; may hide terrible secrets but always very beautiful.

Helen Carey
Centre Culturel Irlandais