You won’t find Tom Thompson sitting around downtown, sipping cappuccino and playing “artist.” You won’t find him in paint-spattered pants frantically networking at other artists’ openings, and you won’t find him at endless meetings of artists’ groups.
Instead, Thompson can be found at home, at his computer, mesmerized at the wonders of the Internet. Frequently he can be found spending time with his daughter, Sophia, encouraging her painting efforts. You might even find him in his basement, deep in earnest concentration as he works on a painting.
Thompson definitely doesn’t fit the persona espoused by critic Clement Greenberg back in the ’50s — i.e., the artist as privileged hero, for whom the laws and rules of society do not apply. Thompson is neither arrogant nor self-aggrandizing — there’s no indication that he considers himself “special” in any way. He is instead quiet, even self-effacing.
The one thing that sets Tom Thompson apart is the remarkable intensity of his work.
The artist has only six paintings in the current Blue Spiral 1 exhibit — but these few steal the show. Thompson’s work engraves itself in the back of the viewer’s brain.
On the back of the gallery’s upstairs wall hangs Thompson’s triptych “Noise 1,” “Noise 2,” “Noise 3,” the pieces done in oil and encaustic on wood (encaustic is pigment combined with beeswax, the mixture fixed to the painting surface with heat after it’s applied).
The left-hand panel of the triptych shows an upside-down figure — or is it? It could actually be the head of a snake poking down from the top — but, if it is a snake, is the nearby ovoid shape a serpent’s egg and not, in fact, a human head?
The triptych’s central panel is almost white, with bits of pastel under-painting oozing through, suggesting a globe moving through the light.
Then in the third panel, the intense color from panel one returns. Among the elements of landscape in “Noise 3,” a figure peers from the left side, while the introduction of snake-like shapes brings to mind Joseph Campbell’s mythological connections.
Clearly, Thompson’s work does not seek to clarify; instead, it poses interesting questions.
Finding himself on the receiving end of a few questions, however, the reserved artist seems resolved to let his art speak for itself.
Mountain Xpress: “Could I ask you a few questions?”
Tom Thompson: “Sure, as long as they have nothing to do with the art …”
MX: “Not about the paintings, but about their titles.”
TT: “Oh, OK.”
MX: “‘Noise 1,’ ‘Noise 2,’ ‘Noise 3’?”
TT: “Sort of a common underlying factor in these paintings is … noise.”
Presenting the artist as himself
Upon the adjoining wall at Blue Spiral hangs a pair of mixed-media works on paper. They depict male heads, very much the same, except that the features of one are much more specific. In both, the eyes are too high and too far apart — all wrong, but ultimately perfect.
The pieces wield a psychological impact that belies explanation; they could be self-portraits — but are they? And if so, what does it mean that the tops of the two heads are cut off by yellow-edged white bands? Is this just a formalist trick of some kind? Moreover, what do the titles “C-1” and “C-2” mean?
MX: “What about ‘C-1’ and ‘C-2’?”
TT: “Oh, those don’t mean anything — I don’t know.”
Age of innocence
“K Matsu 1” and “K Matsu 2” may be the least oblique of this selection of Thompson’s work. Horizontal canvases present profiles of a female head, done in oil and encaustic on wood. The woman depicted is very young and seems vulnerable, her pale features round and soft, her expression placid, perhaps suggesting wonder. Most notably, she wears a voluminous bonnet — early-Renaissance paintings of noblewomen come to mind.
In “K Matsu 1,” the bottom of the canvas holds a dark horizontal band edged with a ragged, pale-green line; the pink background is punctuated with scratches revealing red underneath.
“K Matsu 2” is more complex: Geometric and organic shapes intermingle across the canvas in the kind of artistic marriage that, typically, fails — though not for Thompson. What would never work for other artists seems to present him no trouble.
In “K Matsu 2,” the same innocent profile gazes into the void, and this time the palette is signature Thompson: Rich golds and oranges mix with touches of reds and turquoise.
MX: “‘K Matsu 1’ and ‘K Matsu 2’?”
TT: “Well, there was sort of the idea of children surviving the future — the title is a shortened version of the name of a little girl who was killed when we dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima.”