Dallas Thomas doesn’t really talk about his art. It’s not that the North Carolina native is being modest (and he is, for the record); he’d rather just lay it all out on the canvas. Like the presumed faces hiding behind his tribal mask-inspired forms, his markings are mostly the work of his subconscious—a Freudian hallmark of his style and expression.
Now on display through August 15, Cape Fear Community College will showcase recent work by Thomas at the Wilma W. Daniels Gallery located in the Hanover parking deck downtown. The solo exhibition is a first for Thomas, not counting the culmination of his work as a student studying painting at UNC-Charlotte. Originally from Salisbury, the artist moved to Wilmington about four years ago.
“I’ve been a big fan of Dallas’ work for a while now,” Sarah Rushing, gallery technician for Wilma Daniels, says. “He frequently participated in past shows I’ve curated, and I’ve really enjoyed seeing his work evolve over the past few years. Dallas’ work has an energy—almost a ferocity—that excites me. It’s clearly instinctual for him. It’s evident in the rapidity of his lines, his bold splashes of color, and his aggressive and unapologetic mark-making.”
Thomas, who is hesitant to name specific influences, has a style that most closely aligns with the movement, Bay Area Figurative School. The mid-century crusade saw greats like David Park and Wayne Thiebaud distinctively mark the movement away from abstract expressionism and toward the return of figurative painting.
“It’s hard to really describe my work,” Thomas reacts. “I’ve always been inspired by abstract expressionism, but I would call my work complex and stylistic figurative work. Maybe it’s actually a happy medium between the two.”
His purposeful strokes and economy of line creates a sense of form suspended in space. It’s like portraiture that transforms and deconstructs the human figure into elements of a still life. Among those elements are tribal-inspired masks, which Thomas studies in a set of books he’s collected from the 1950s.
“I would say the masks are almost unrecognizable, but you, ultimately, know it’s a mask because of the feet,” Thomas explains of his depictions. “I guess I started adding the legs and feet to paintings because in figurative work, they’re notoriously hard to draw, and I like the fact that I can look down at my own feet while I work. I don’t need a model.”
The bottom limbs are one of Thomas’ finer points which otherwise border on abstract. In “Sounds I Make Are the Sounds of the Hounds” (72 inches x 48 inches; oil, charcoal and graphite on canvas), the underdrawing of toes and rigid ankles bleed through flesh-colored pigments. The figure appears to don a beaked mask of bird and feathers.
“The piece is loosely figurative, but it did evolve into this idea that there is someone behind that mask,” Thomas explains.
In fact, every piece in the show at the Wilma W. Daniels Gallery features uncovered human feet, which is amusing in contrast to Thomas’ “real” job. He works as a designer for local company Freaker USA. And he helped design many wares in their latest venture: socks.
When Thomas isn’t behind the computer at the company’s Wilmington headquarters, he is in front of the canvas. He likes to work while the paint is wet.
“I like everything to be customizable,” Thomas tells. “Working while the paint is still wet allows me to do that: I go back and forth between drawing and painting, drawing and painting.”
Occasionally, Thomas leaves the tailored designs to a minimum. Many of his pieces are unfinished, yet still refined.
“The end goal for me is to create something that looks good,” he notes. “Sometimes that means a piece will not have a whole lot of mark-making on it. Other times, it means there’s a lot of paint on the canvas. It varies.”
And that’s the way it goes when Thomas talks about his work. There’s more to want on his process: details, narratives of hidden faces, etc. Despite the artist’s mystique, the reception folks have to his work speaks volumes.
“Dallas’s exhibition is such a perfect summer show,” Rushing says. “It’s a whimsical collection of work full of bright colors. One of the things I love the most is the way it makes me feel. Our gallery assistant, Keltsey Mattachione, and I are both painters ourselves. We hung the show together and left that day feeling so inspired. Dallas’ paintings made us want to paint. I can’t think of a higher compliment as an artist.”