James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time, a twenty-year retrospective of paintings, prints, drawings, and fused glass by the notable Oregon artist, opens Saturday, January 23, at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem, where it continues through March 26. The exhibition is arranged in eleven series of work, beginning in 1995 and continuing through 2015. Bob Hicks wrote the essay for the accompanying catalog. Here, we excerpt its passages on the first series in the exhibition, “Certain Situations,” created 1995-1997.
The world of James B. Thompson is a mindscape of bits and pieces waiting to be rearranged. It holds fragments of history and shards of place. Fleeting thoughts, broken connections, surviving evidences of cultures and ways of thinking buried deep in time. It’s a destination of transformations and sly jokes about the universe’s constant state of change: as he wryly puts it, the fragmentary is so becoming. His art ranges across continents of possibilities, assembling and creating contemporary beauty out of evidences of things past. The ritual sites of prehistoric Picts. The game of golf. Disappearing landscapes. French village life. The medieval sense of space, forgotten hand tools, the way that glass can be like a map. …
The first series in this twenty-year retrospective rises, as so much of Thompson’s mature work does, partly from his visits to Scotland. It also marks the fruition of twenty years of earlier work, developing his themes and styles, discovering the future of his own art. That future wound through the world of medieval art, then back again to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
For most of his career to this point, Thompson had been a committed abstractionist, surfing in his independent way the waves of modern and contemporary movements. Here, he stuck with contemporary theories of color and space, but added figures, not so much for their emotional impact (although the figure of Death, for instance, is fraught with implications), but as added shapes and suggestions to be shuffled into place on the plane of canvas or paper. It seemed a minor shift: he wasn’t adopting an Andrew Wyeth sort of realism, or even a Francis Bacon−style contorted figurism. Yet it represented a personal leap forward through a giant leap backward.
“I started this series after I did my research in Scotland in ’95,” Thompson explains. He was looking at architecture, landscapes, ruins, and surviving examples of medieval art, including manuscripts. What he saw “had nothing to do with the Renaissance—oil painting wasn’t around.” In books of hours, those often gloriously illuminated medieval devotionals, he saw the beginnings of science and botany: fresh ways of examining the world. “It’s a huge wealth of information. Gigantic.” And he saw depictions of the physical world that made no pretense of being realistically accurate. They were stylized, decorative, seemingly out of whack—measured more by matters of faith and the mind than the eye. Their proportions weren’t “correct” according to the Renaissance model that would soon follow. They were more arbitrary and theological, with an understanding of time and space that was open to eternal possibilities and therefore not pinned down by the small tyrannies of physical reality. “I always felt the medieval artists were playing with a less fixed point of view. And I liked that.”
In medieval art, he discovered, “There was this whole world of fragments they were trying to bring together. All of their different subjects. All those different occupations. Ways of living. I found this to be fascinating.” So he took the idea of fragments and recombined them into his own.
In his own and very different way, with this series Thompson followed the path of the nineteenth- century Pre-Raphaelites, leaping all the way back to medieval times to forge a link with modernity. He simply skipped the centuries beginning with the Renaissance and their emphasis on a fixed point of view and proportionality: “I didn’t believe in that. I didn’t care about it.” What he admired in medieval art, and carries through into his own, is a sort of floating focus, an approach to representation that belies the classical rules of gravity and proportionality to create something that seems fantastic if you think of it in “realistic” terms, but which isn’t at all if you think of it as a conjunction of visual ideas. Stripping away its religious tenets and considering the art of the Middle Ages simply in visual terms, he found an analog for the shifting, elusive, Rashomon-like multiple perspectives of modern quantum mechanics. As the mathematician Edward Frenkel phrased the question: “Is there a fixed reality apart from our various observations of it? Or is reality nothing more than a kaleidoscope of infinite possibilities?” Thompson simply wasn’t interested in carrying on the European tradition of realistic perspective, which he believes has played itself out. “They had it really good,” he says wryly of artists working in the house that Leonardo built. “Four hundred years of imitation.” Renaissance art, he says, was all about drawing and then filling in with paint. “I’m just mixing things up. I’m drawing and painting at the same time. It’s what I enjoy.”
The humor pops in Certain Situations. The colors pop, too, with a brash, vivid energy that suggests a kinship with the fervid wit of a Roy Lichtenstein or Robert Arneson, or an hallucinogenic edition of the Sunday comics: deep rich reds, blues, oranges, and golds, with rough scrawled figures that rise from pre-Freudian dreams. The series also allowed Thompson to play around with some purely formal ideas, as in The Hand of Trust, which depicts two dwarfed figures against a dominating field of blue, the stern-looking man holding the chastened boy by the wrist and squeezing so hard the boy’s hand turns red: “It was my wanting to take these fragments and putting them into color fields. It solved this problem for me of putting something bright and brilliant in front of you. The intensity. And that comes down to color and scale.” Add some intimations of medieval Everyman and looming Death figures, and suddenly you’ve entered a crazily tilted danger zone. The paintings also carry hints of the sacred and profane, like the obscene marginal scribblings of medieval monks in holy manuscripts, or the elephant dung and vaginal cutouts on Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary, which in 1999 (two years after this series was completed) drove New York’s then-mayor Rudy Giuliani into a litigious frenzy.
Some paintings suggest a traditional formality with their neat divisions on the paper, such as The Five Positions of Life. Lined up across the bottom of the long rectangle are five miniature round paintings, like manuscript illuminations, of people working in the fields (unless you count the Church, there were almost no office jobs), plus a sixth circle with the outline of a dog, an ever-present companion in this rural environment. In the large strip above, against a nobbled field of red with yellow streaks, are the whimsical rough shapes of a drum and a furnace with a roaring fire. Together they make a captivating image, rippling with suggestion but deflecting any effort to be shaped into a story.
Thompson’s dry wit touches some of the works in this series, including the puckishly titled 2.5 Children, which pictures a man and woman seated on either side of a scrawled house that, like Baba Yaga’s, seems to have sprouted legs, with their demographically correct two and a half children playing in the foreground; and The Alchemist Returns Home, in which the would-be goldmaker, all electric-haired and surprised, approaches his home and discovers its interior is made of gold leaf: His treasure ’s been there the whole time.
The series includes small mysteries, among them A Child’s Wish—a bird in a cage, tree blossoms, an intricate scene through a keyhole, like the landscapes and townscapes beyond the castle windows in early Renaissance interior portraits. Through the keyhole, like a hidden favor or a forbidden fruit, a woman is balancing two bundles at opposite ends of a stick, like weighing justice, with an onion-dome tower behind. And what, the question lingers, is the child’s wish?
The rough cruelty and narrow-mindedness of the age come into play, too, most starkly in The Bath House, a split-panel painting that depicts a graceful woman on a blue field on one side, and, against a blood-red field on the other, two pair of bone-white legs, shorn of their bodies from the waist up. “The headless figures are apparitions of what Christians thought Muslims looked like,” Thompson says: partial; subhuman.
In the middle ages, Death was a constant companion, lurking, waiting, a visitor well-known to one and all. Unlike today, when we cloak his presence, he openly stalked the land. We meet him several times in Certain Situations. Perhaps, by knowing him so well, people were also more vividly aware of life. In The Blue Death he ’s boxed in, and skeletal, and lively, if Death can be said to be alive. Creatures are all around him, in their own cages: Directly below Death is a dog, perhaps a wolfhound. In the oddly beautiful The Visitation, a ghost man hovers above the fray as a red flag of some sort shouts a warning and Death, scythe in hand, visits a man lying in bed. The Measure of Man is wryly literal: Death with a measuring stick, totting the poor fellow up.
And there is the lovely, almost musical Nocturne, an oasis of greenery against hypnotic van Gogh swirls of sky and ground, with a meandering slash of water and two prone figures lost in the embrace of it all: a beautiful, ideal vision of making love, as in a dream. If Death takes away life, more life must be made. And isn’t the pleasure sweeter, knowing it will be brief?
Excerpted from “James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time,” © 2016 by the Hallie Ford Museum of Art at Willamette University. Essay © 2016 by Bob Hicks. Images © James B. Thompson. Reprinted with permission.