Apocalypse now

Where does Greenville, S.C., painter William Thomas Thompson fit into the “art brut” club, an association with increasingly loose standards of membership?

Decide for yourself: The Art and Vision of William Thomas Thompson opens this week at Hendersonville art space Gallery 415.

At one time, the title of folk or naive artist was restricted to men and women from certain indigenous groups who made functional, traditional items like quilts, jugs, chairs, walking sticks, weather vanes and the like. Mostly these were artifacts, remnants of vanishing cultures — objects meant for natural-history museums, not fine-art galleries.

But perhaps as a reaction to the perception that modern art was all head and no heart, the last half of the 20th century saw a rising interest in work by uneducated painters and sculptors living in isolation (self-imposed or otherwise).

Theirs was defiantly art with heart.

Many of these artists were from the rural South, and many drew their inspiration from fundamentalist Christianity’s tempestuous visions of hell and salvation.

Their work gradually became commercially viable. Sophisticated collectors enjoyed slumming it, as it were, showing friends the “weird,” fire-and-brimstone, fear-based works of such celebrated, visionary artists as Howard Finster and Prophet “Royal” Robertson.

But, as this kind of work became more popular, a different kind of “outsider” artist appeared: one who was well-traveled, educated and living a contemporary lifestyle. The world of serious art was too hard, and making “faux folk” art seemed an attractive path.

Where William Thomas Thompson fits into this conundrum is a conundrum of its own.

Thompson has not studied art, but he is not unworldly: He was an entrepreneur who traveled to many parts of the world before being “called by God” to paint after attending an inspirational church service in Hawaii.

If outsider-artist status depends only on an obsessive nature, though, Thompson is secure in his membership.

He is extremely prolific, and passionate about his subjects. His scenes drawn from the Book of Revelation relay a message of hard-core, right-wing Christian fundamentalism — literally. Phrases painted into various works include “the BEAST System of the European Common Market” and “50 Million Christians (Protestants) Killed During the Dark Ages by Rome.” (There’s also text warning against abortion, the mark of the beast and plain, old-fashioned lust.)

But Thompson doesn’t stew solely in the past: Newer pieces depict Saddam Hussein as the “Butcher of Baghdad,” and Harry Potter flying on his broom pursued by demons escaping the “Hell of Magic.”

Like the predictability of his messages, Thompson’s brushwork is unrelentingly expressive — and passages of lyricism rise in works like “Creation,” where lush colors surround a white-veiled vortex.

Some of Thompson’s paintings betray an interest in art history, like “Church,” which depicts a white house of worship silhouetted against a very blue sky, with white, Kandinsky-like angels floating above.

The piece “Sugar Baby” depicts a little girl with rotten teeth, a can of soda on each side of her. The child’s dress is suggested by Pollock dribbles — a device Thompson uses in a number of other pieces.

Scattered among the Biblical works and abstractions are a few curious scenes of lavender ducks flying in formation, and springtime landscapes seen through a window hung with lace curtains. These works are decidedly less interesting than the religious ones.

Many apocalypse-minded painters claim divine guidance in the creation of their work. So, if their work is truly instructed by the Almighty, how can a mere human place value on it?

Still, it’s remarkable how often such artists share common afflictions. Most of them struggle with personal tragedy or mental or bodily disease, which has impelled them along the road to their obsessive art making. Thompson’s malady is physical, a nerve condition that has paralyzed his lower legs and partially crippled his hands.

In the larger art world, though, it’s rarely mentioned that contemporary photo-realist master Chuck Close, for example, is a quadriplegic. His paintings must stand on their own.


The Art and Vision of William Thomas Thompson opens at Gallery 415 (415 Wall St., in Hendersonville) on Friday, Sept. 12 with a reception from 6-10:30 p.m. The exhibit runs through Friday, Sept. 26, but will be open only by appointment after Sept. 12. To arrange an appointment, call 692-8535.

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