Charles Dickens said “there are only two styles of portrait painting; the serious and the smirk”.  So what of the artist who seems to accomplish both in his work? Tom Polo is one such artist. Since graduating from UNSW Art & Design in 2011, Tom has worked almost exclusively with portraiture and text. His main themes are anxiety, failure, self-help and humour. He’s interested in “conveying meaning about the human condition of both [himself] and others.”

Human faces convey emotions that are otherwise hard or impossible to express. So too do our words allow for direct insight into thoughts and feelings. Combine usage of both faces and words in an artistic practice and opportunity to demonstrate even conflicting and confounding experiences abounds.

Think of Polo’s 2015 exhibition, The fool faces sideways (see how they resolve), at STATION in Melbourne. The show consisted of a pink room with text and flattened silhouette style portraits. The floor was coloured a deep rose and the ceiling made of chipboard, the result of which created a flesh-like glow. Stepping into the space provided a surround experience.   Viewers absorbed wall messages, including notions of being side-on fools, while themselves facing side ways within the installation.     

Polo’s style deliberately thwarts formal technique. He does not render subjects to actual scale or with any sense of realism. Instead he opts for a geometrically erroneous composition usually utilising only a small palette of colour. His works convey specific and peaked emotional states of the subject, and his method of expression ensures the viewer is a participant.  Simple, riveting and sometimes ridiculous, Polo deliberately uses humour as “a coping mechanism” and “a tool for entertainment”.  

More recently he offered up a live-art performance in the foyer of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Over a ten day period he worked in 6 hour stints without a preconceived topic in mind. He let the comings-and-goings of the people in and out of the gallery influence him and drive the elements of work.  Snippets of conversation, unusual profiles and small objects all found their way into this large scale wall painting.

As part of Art Month Sydney 2016, Polo will present work in the Green-eyed monster eating its own tail.  It’s a group show that mocks the insular nature of the art world. Directed by Barry Keldoulis, and including Tracey Moffatt, John Citizen (aka Gordon Bennett), and Heath Franco (also a UNSW Art & Design alumni), Polo’s work has become the exhibition’s signature statement. It says, “somebody once told me that even one bad painting in an exhibition will stop people remembering an otherwise stellar show”.

Polo is the recipient of the 2015 Brett Whiteley Travelling Scholarship.

Green-eyed monster eating its own tail runs from 5-20 March at the Paramount Building and Golden Age Cinema and Bar, 80 Commonwealth Street, Surry Hills.