Tom Polo in his Artspace studio, 2017. Courtesy the artist. 
Published in VAULT | Issue 22, 2018


“I don’t want to paint a cat looking for food,” declares Tom Polo. “I want to paint a cat that suggests it has four claws because maybe it has four lives left. My works are about the fundamentals and variations of what an image has the capacity to say.”

Polo creates images, words, and painted environments that explore the emotional and psychological sagas of anxiety, tension, and expectation. His figures, gestures and texts unfold from habitual scans of his social surroundings, interactions between himself and other people, and a curiosity about the function of facades and personas. Overheard conversations, small talk at art shows, text messages with friends, awkward meetings and interpersonal musings all serve as cues (and clues) for the artist, who chronicles them with a graphic fidelity.

I meet Polo at his studio at Sydney’s Artspace, and since it’s a hot morning, I bring us cacao drinks to cool down. He hesitantly asks what the ingredients are. I half-jokingly say, “all sorts of vitamins, so we can become our best selves.” Suspicion gone, he takes a swig, and says, “I’m Italian, and we have this saying, ‘la bella figura’ – or beautiful figure – which is the idea of wanting to present your best self or facade, showing yourself in the best possible light. I’m fascinated by that.”

Over the past decade, Polo’s practice has revolved around one-liner texts and figurative works that deal with the semantics of personas: our best and worst selves, and the ways in which we conceal and reveal them. He’s presented stand-alone words on billboards, banners, neon signs, sweatshirts and a book, often bending and spinning letters into radical, anti-style placards that feature ineffective or paradoxical suggestions. Words become dead-ended dialogue in A closed conversation opens (2018), while YOU ARE EXCELLENT (2008), with the ‘T’ cropped off, is a cordial salute to failure and shortcomings.

“I’ve always regarded my work to be about the communication of words and images,” he says. “Language can draw you in but it can also be a barrier, like when you see spelling mistakes on billboards, or poorly hand-painted signs. These graphics are designed to entice, but because they’re hard to read they become counterproductive, so their mixed message depends entirely on how you read the situation. I find this underlying humility to be endearing. It adds a quality of simpatico.” In other works, Polo hides passages in the undercurrent of his painterly figures, a sub-narrative for those who seek it.

The above text is an excerpt.
Read the full feature in VAULT: Issue 22