Below the Surface of Elizabeth Thomson’s Undulating Waterscapes at Sydney Contemporary

At first glance Thomson’s compositions feel familiar, particularly when viewed in Sydney, a city celebrated for its beaches and founded on the world’s largest natural harbor. There’s no shortage of watery vistas in Australia, nor in nearby New Zealand, where Thomson grew up.  An homage to her environment, these new works are beautiful, scintillating reflections on the elemental liquid.
But for addressing a subject so familiar to humankind, Thomson creates a good deal of intrigue. Take a closer look at Between Memory and Oblivion 7 (2015). The perspective is disorienting. It’s not clear which way is up—whether you, as the viewer, are looking up from underwater, or gazing at the water’s surface from above. Her materials are also unexpected. Thomson hasn’t photographed or painted these blue passages, as you might expect, but sculpted wood on polymeric vinyl with small, clear glass beads applied to the surface—not unlike  ’s abstractions, which used glass microbeads to create radiant surfaces. Alternatively, Topographical study for the Aviatrix 1 (2015) is one of a few pieces in the show that doesn’t depict water at all. Here, the perspective, though easier to discern, challenges the viewer in a different way: small green leaves punctuate an invisible field, seeming to drift into the infinite distance.
Thomson’s influences are wide and varied, including music, mathematics, philosophy, and cultural history. She’s taken her creative cues from objects and symbols as diverse as the pattern of a Japanese kimono, the elegant gardens of European capitals, and the geometry of mandalas. Not that you’d necessarily be able to recognize these inspirations in her finished works: Thomson is a master of subtlety.