Thomas Macker’s Objectvoid reviewed in Casper Journal 11.26.16

Conceptual exhibit offers uncommon experience

Images appear from black paintings when you touch them. Carpet padding covers the floor of the room and leads to the next, where a thermal-imaging camera scans the space and its visitors. The footage feeds live to a computer tablet screen perched on the wall. Neon-hued lights reveal cartoon-like images in frames jutting perpendicular from the wall on each side.

Thomas Macker’s “Holdout” installation isn’t the typical art exhibit at the Nicolaysen Art Museum.

Jackson artist Macker used new media materials and techniques to explore camouflage, bygone war propaganda and the identity of the “holdout” figure in modern warfare, according to a description of the show on his website. The high-tech materials include thermal imaging, color-changing thermal paint and titanium anodization.

The exhibition was a little more than two years in the making, with extensive research behind complex imagery.

“That’s about how much time I like to think about a project, is two years,” Macker said. “I like to think a lot and I read a lot, and a lot of the work starts out with these bigger questions.”

This one started exploring the military holdout figure – one who holds out for the original interest of the war.

Hiroo Onoda was one. The Japanese soldier in World War II spent 30 years after 1945 fighting innocent civilians in the Philippine’s jungle, convinced the war wasn’t over and that he was performing a noble act of covert espionage, Macker said. He eventually returned and was considered a hero for his loyalty, though situations for some holdouts in history turned out less fortunate for them, Macker said. He also contemplated the estimated 22 suicides daily among U.S. veterans in his research and art.

War propaganda from various conflicts around the world figures into the installation as well. Leaflets dropped onto enemy troops is a common form of psychological warfare during conflicts. The propaganda often features disturbing messages and images, sometimes revealed when held up to sunlight.

His installation references the concept, with pieces like a large painting of a nude figure, in which the thermal-vision camera screen reveals three large arm shapes swallowing the figure. LED back-lighting also reveals a few images from propaganda leaflets in conflicts around the globe since World War II.

The installation also represents a moving and “covert gesture of peace” with a reflective metal bonsai tree sculpture, Macker said. Among 50 bonsai trees Japan gifted for the U.S. National Arboretum during the U.S. bicentennial in 1976 was a nearly 400-year-old Miyajima pine sculpted and tended through generations of one family. No one mentioned that fact, or that the tree had survived the Hiroshima bomb, until the members of the family visited the arboretum in 2001.

The tree was gifted at the time Onoda finally emerged from his holdout. Macker titled the sculpture, “Unflagging, Hiroo Onoda’s Motto on Loyalty.”

“That was a way of returning to grace for the artwork, because it is so heavy,” Macker said.

Viewers have reacted with confusion mixed with amazement as they’ve enjoyed the interactive show they become part of, instead of just looking at it, Nic curator Eric Wimmer said. The exhibition is a chance to show conceptual art being created in Wyoming by one of the state’s top artists.

“I knew it would be unlike anything else we had shown before,” he said.

Macker was awarded a 2015 Wyoming Arts Council Fellowship and has exhibited his work in Los Angeles, Beirut, San Francisco, Chicago, Miami and New York. He teaches at Central Wyoming College and formerly co-directed artist-run gallery and press, In The Pines. He discovered a love for Wyoming while earning his master’s degree in fine art from CalArts and lives in Jackson with his son and wife.

It’s only looking back that the inspiration behind his latest exhibition has become clear, Macker said. He spoke of people distancing themselves from others while presenting virtual selves on social media to political strife.

“I just feel there’s all this alienation and sadness and singularity that is occurring, which is hopefully going to create a return to community and to thoughtfulness and to empathy – which is the tender gesture of the bonsai tree,” Macker said. “That, I think is the driving force behind the work. I just don’t think I knew it when I started making it.”