Unfamiliar Territory

By Jeffry Cudlin

Gregory Thielker must love getting lost. Given his fastidious nature and his predilection for creating detailed, hyper-real paintings and drawings, one might expect that the artist would prefer a controlled, familiar work environment. Undoubtedly Mr. Thielker could develop a fine oeuvre just by focusing on the confines of his studio and his own backyard. After all, generations of gifted painters have stayed close to their native lands: from Constable, forever depicting the strip of Suffolk County where he was born and raised; to Cezanne, training his eye on Mont Sainte-Victoire and his home in Aix en Provence.

But at every opportunity, Mr. Thielker has thrown himself into the far-flung and unfamiliar. From plein air painting at twilight in the snow and ice along Norway’s Gamle Strynefjellsveg, to residencies and special projects in El Salvador and Bagram, Afghanistan, Mr. Thielker has routinely packed up his tools and traveled for long stretches of time in places where the language, the climate, and the terrain have been entirely alien, if not forbidding. The result is a body of work buzzing with intense, heightened perceptions, yet confronting the viewer with reticent, unsentimental images that defy easy narrative associations.

For “Highway,” his recent project as a Fulbright scholar in India, the artist set out to systematically record dramatic changes along the Grand Trunk Road—South Asia’s longest and oldest road, dating back to the 16th century. The 918-mile portion of the route that connected Delhi and Kolkata has in recent years been transformed into National Highway 2, a sleek four-lane superhighway carrying speeding cars through sleepy villages. The road now embodies the contradictions of a country hungry for modernity but still defined by its ancient traditions, ramshackle infrastructure, and poverty.

While working on the project, Mr. Thielker behaved more like a researcher or amateur ethnographer than a painter’s painter. With the help of interpreters, the artist recorded interviews with truck drivers, schoolteachers, and random passers-by, asking questions about how the new road impacted their communities—and often receiving unexpected or inscrutable responses. In the eyes of those who live near it, either the road will change everything…or it is emblematic of how nothing in India will ever really change.

For the more than forty drawings that compose “Highway,” Mr. Thielker took great pains to step away from his own personal notions of the exotic or picturesque. The artist chose his subjects via chance procedure: As he drove from the Old Iron Bridge across the Yamuna River in Delhi to the Ganges River in Kolkata, every 76km, Mr. Thielker stopped the car, hopped out, and drew whatever happened to be in front of him.

As he worked, Mr. Thielker sought not only to avoid personal preference in the selection of a scene, but also in assigning pictorial emphasis. His compositions exhibit a democratic evenness of finish and sharpness of focus throughout foreground, middleground, and background. The artist activates every surface with tiny hatchings and stippling, resulting in drawings that are rich in detail but low in value contrast.

Shadows in Mr. Thielker’s drawings seem to cling to the edges of objects, flattening space in a manner not unlike flash photography—despite the fact that most of his scenes are outdoors. Interspersed with pictures of boring mile markers, horrific Leyland truck accidents, and ubiquitous tangles of power lines suspended over dilapidated buildings are careful reproductions of two dimensional objects: Google maps, pages from library books, and hotel receipts. Mr. Thielker’s India is not a land of rich, rioting color, but of washed-out contrast and typographical detritus—a grey Xerox-copy world.

Mr. Thielker’s translation of firsthand, real-world experience into original artworks with the knocked-down, second hand quality of xerography and photography is a little unsettling, but entirely appropriate. It’s a collision of cultural tradition and universal technology not unlike, say, the construction of a massive modern highway based on a road designed by a 16th century Mughal conqueror.

Ultimately, Mr. Thielker seems to believe that traditional artmaking can and should do more to transform our awareness of life in the present tense. For “Highway,” he has proven himself more than willing to venture into unfamiliar territory—geographic, artistic, or otherwise—to bring about that transformation. The results should serve as an example for any studio artist looking for ways to simultaneously engage diverse audiences, embrace contemporary content, and use old skills to glean new understanding.

Jeffry Cudlin works as an artist, critic, educator, and curator.  He serves as Professor of Curatorial Studies and Practice at Maryland Institute College of Art.  He has written for The Washington Post and Sculpture Magazine.