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Paradise lost in 'notopia' in Lex Thomas' paintings

An exhibition opening in Newcastle this week invites viewers into a weird and wonderful world, says BARBARA HODGSON

The Fabuslists by Lex Thomas
The Fabuslists by Lex Thomas

CURIOUS hybrid creatures, including men and women with animal heads, a zebra with the head of a pelican and what looks like a snake in a dress are set to raise a few eyebrows, and no doubt a few smiles, when a new exhibition opens in Newcastle this week.

These are creations given life in the fertile imagination of London-based artist Lex Thomas and flourish in Future Proof, the first solo exhibition of her work.

At first glance, the artworks have the appearance of old, dark oil paintings, heavy on landscape and period costume, but closer inspection by visitors to Opus Gallery in Dean Street from Friday will spot – aside from the varied selection of animal heads – some quirky touches such as a satellite dish or a telescope.

From the white mouse with a toad’s body (and wind-up key in its back) to the lion “king” in dress and plimsolls enjoying a card game, it’s a fascinating and strangely enjoyable surreal world. And it’s one that mixes nostalgia and utopia.

Thomas has come up with a new collection of oil paintings to sit alongside some previously-unseen watercolours, early collages and limited-edition prints.

Playing with ideas of what’s original and what is artifice or a copy, she evokes iconic landscapes, often an imitation or pastiche of the work of artists such as Thomas Gainsborough and Francis Hayman.

She creates miniature facsimiles of 18th Century paintings then adds those touches from the digital age. It’s not hard for viewers to become absorbed in her fictional world, which she describes as “obsessively detailed to create an atmosphere of ‘futuristic nostalgia’.”

She has coined the term ‘notopia’ for her dystopian images, where her hybrids populate a lost paradise and she throws in suggestions of mythical creatures genetically modified in a “retro-futuristic” collision of science and nature.

But there is plenty of satirical humour there too to counteract what can be seen as a pretty disturbing backdrop.

Thomas has worked as a professional fine artist since graduating in fine art from Chelsea College in 2007 and also has a background in TV graphics and animation which has led to her winning BAFTA and Royal Television Society awards. She’s had work shown in group exhibitions across the UK as well as in Europe and the US.

She also does drawings of creepy-crawlies, including even more adventurous hybrids, and fun, bright and breezy collages showing, for instance, a ram’s head morphed onto a model on a knitting pattern or a fantasy creature stuck onto a traditional postcard scene.

She’s described herself as having a love-hate relationship with technology and her work, while combining traditional techniques with computerised imagery, also parodies man as machine.

It ties in with her interest in the writings of Frenchman Jean Baudrillard who tackled issues of style without substance; how man is virtually disabled without machines and the apparent modern-day inability to distinguish reality from fantasy.

It all comes through in work which also illustrates how passionate she is about original works of art.

That’s evident in her time-consuming, labour-intensive artworks, which involve everything from grinding pigments to making glazes and feature an astonishing amount of the detail and layering of paint.

She sees it as a way to examine the past, define the present and portray a vision of the future that has become obsolete.

Lex Thomas: Future Proof goes on private view at Opus Fine Art in Milburn House, Dean Street, Newcastle, at 6pm on Friday. The exhibition then runs until October 21.

The gallery is open from Monday to Friday, 10am-5pm, by appointment only. Visit www.opus-art.com or call 0191 232 7389.

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