Updated: May 3, 2018
As a painter, Thomas Frontini is a very good spinner of tales. He sees magic in the mundane, and explores the themes of creativity, youthful experience, and the transformative power of the imagination. His characters contain a degree of emotional depth comparable to those in narratives. They arise out of myth and memory, and often enter from his intimate emotional life, and aid him in dramatizing various parables on creativity, family, and the search for identity. They project a quality of innocence that is part fancifulness and part fantasy, affirming Frontini’s earnest appreciation for the rigor of dreams. The structure of fantasy has its base in allegory--the construction of an ethos through divergent modes of expression. A fantasy is more than a single fabrication, but a complication of means in collusion towards the end of setting up an exception to the mundane upon the model of an ethical exception. By creating an atypical progression of the real, the enabler of fantasies is creating a morally ambiguous but fresh universe to which we can easily apply new experiences and values. The stories of Thomas Frontini are each paeans to the mysterious yet curious imagination of children. In some cases they are learning to see, in others they are caught as if by a photograph in moments of leisure and possession that underscore the degree to which common experiences such as a day at the beach may be transformed into a subjective realm of emotionally charged experience that will in later years represent the magical and immutable character of their early youth, untrammeled by adult contexts or justifications.
The Artist Sees Only What He Believes (Nature’s Apprentice) shows a seated boy engaged in painting an image of his subject, another boy who happens to be a centaur, the creature out of ancient Greek myth who represented a primordial mingling of human intelligence and animal instinct. The painting upon his easel shows not the full figure of the centaur but only the face and mane of an actual horse. The horse which he paints is iconic, almost as if it were merely a statue in stone or bronze, a symbol of inherent ‘horseness’ that it is perhaps easy to forget when faced with a stunning creature such a centaur, who speaks with reason, and yet moves around in the world with the speed and ease of a four-legged animal. The element of overt unreality in this picture serves to illustrate the boy’s understanding of nature, which is to say the separation of the character of his subject from his over manifestation in reality. Painting by young boys is not the same as that done by men; it is meant as a means of exploring the unknown in order to seek the origin of visual values that will translate into empirical ones. The boy in this picture uses his imagination to seek our essence instead of relying upon the details of an overly fantastic daily reality, forging a link between the imagination and moral character.
In Girl in the Forest (Feral Princess) we have another artist in training, who has stopped to turn her face to the viewer, and in this moment’s repose, we are able to see her in her own sense of emotional stasis--a cipher for the sake of her art, and otherwise mute. The painting is a self-portrait but it is in great contrast to the figure herself and the dynamic yet sensuous genre of her immediate surroundings, which are filled with loaded meaning. She is accompanied by the figure of an elf, of the ceramic kind made to sit in suburban front yards for Christmas celebrations; here, in the lushness of spring he looks out of place, but he remains jolly, laughing loudly while holding onto his belt, as if he might lose himself to the force of his emotion. The woods around her are lush and deep, and the area immediately around her is filled with birds that flit about and, one can imagine, sing freely and with much animation, while she sits frozen, holding a ball upon which perches a small blue bird. The self-portrait at her side seems to echo her own stilled form, lacking only the ball and the bird. There is a quality of guarded, nearly malevolent patience in the young girl, as if she has been interrupted in the middle of very intent play--a ritual she values but which also represents her privacy. She waits to resume it while not indicating any other emotional trait; though her familiars, animal and mythological alike, continue undisturbed in the mischievous tenor of their day.
In Everything She Needs (North Michigan Beach Scene) the artist depicts the charming yet innocuous image of a young girl and her dog, a standard poodle whose fur has been sculpted and painted bright pink in a manner common to the pets of the wealthy. Though she is as tall as the dog, and though its very appearance marks it as the subject of certain female flights of fancy--typically girlish coloring, dressing up, etc--it is a large dog and its sheer size and directness of countenance also mark it as a protector or the girl, whose expression belies only the satisfaction of a carefree summer day at the beach. Again, in “Puppy an Ponies” a small girl is seated on a red and white tasseled rug accompanied by her pet, a small white dog, and in the presence of two large domestic horses, and upon the hindquarters of one of them, a small pink owl. The horses have white flowing manes and dark glowering eyes, and stand quite still over her, one facing the viewer, the other turned aside and moving his head to correspond to a likewise perspective. The ground around them is covered with the deep marks of their hooves and the scene behind them shows a path between hills with a light blue and ever deepening dusk. In both of these paintings Frontini depicts the close relationship between animals and children, in which the child attaches herself to them not only as familiars of the natural world, which animates their emotional desires and hides them from adults with their rules and sensible teachings about “the way of the world,” but also they in some way become personas, friends and gods in one instant. The child has one main desire: to remain in the moment; to continue the level of instinctual learning that need seek only further sensation, and to revel in instinct as a disavowal of intelligent learning.
Finally, we have the oblique yet earnest image of The Birth of the Great Balladeer in which the artist portrays a very fantastical scene underscoring the desire for popularity, even heroism as presented by the innate ability for song. The image shows a large pool of water with coral, seashells, a starfish and lobster in it, and amidst all this, four beautiful mermaids wave to the viewer while holding large red conch shell upon which stands a gangly and pale naked young man holding a guitar, ready to play. The sky behind him is filled with the inverse plume of a nuclear explosion, as if the magic of his ability were instantly transmitted to heaven. This image is part revelation of myth and its place in poem and song, and part repressed fantasy. The balladeer and the painter have much in common; each expresses an immutable truth but suffers for it to be borne through the inequities of the role the artist has in everyday life. His is not viewed as a practical function in society, and the gains are less immediately recognizable than those conferred by wealth or power. He may be loved or admired, he may even alter the fabric of reality, but he belongs to myth. The mermaids in this painting are not mothers for they have no human wombs; they are like spiritual sisters who have produced, through sheer force of will, a spirit of creative expression to give value to the nature of experience on the human plane of existence. They are presenting a gift to man and will soon recede into the mists of time. Like Venus on the half shell, the poet stands for love even as he stands alone, an antihero who cannot partake of what he offers.
The paintings of Thomas Frontini all ask a very basic question: Where does imagination come from? Clearly, it is born in the mind of the child, a mental construction of reality which stops time and reverses the normal flow of logic to serve fantastic and sensate ends. The child possesses an imagination that has not yet been curtailed by adult logic, the burgeoning impulses of maturity, or by too much factual knowledge. What the child understands has been gained mainly by a degree naive empiricism, which includes the imaginary and mythical tales which he or she has been told. We tell such tales to children because we hope to instill in them a fascination for the unknown, and because such tales, beyond their overt veneer of symbolic reality, also contain idealistic values that should predate any harder truths to come along later in life. Imagination comes from being innately innocent, believing that all things are possible. The paintings of Thomas Frontini are one step in the right direction.