“It’s all marks,” Salem artist James B. Thompson said, walking through the gallery at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art where his most recent show is entering its final days. “That’s what I do.”
Indeed, making marks is what humans do, and trying to interpret marks left by earlier or other people is what humans do, and failing to make the connections is very much what humans do. And in that sense, mark-making – the creation of fragments – is elementally human.
The other day I drove to Salem and met Thompson at the museum, where “Linear Metaphysics: Mark-Making and Time-Based Art Works” closes a month-long run on Sunday. I’ve admired his work in the past, and wrote a few years ago about the lush land-based paintings in his show “The Vanishing Landscape,” also at the Hallie Ford. Like a lot of Western artists – he’s from Chicago but he’s been teaching at Willamette University in Salem since 1986, and he’s come to regard himself as a Westerner – Thompson thinks a lot about the land and how it’s used and the markings that people make on it: the works in “Vanishing Landscape” were subtly about mapping and reshaping.
Since then, Thompson’s been spending time in the Scottish Highlands and the Orkney Islands, and he’s become fascinated with the markings left there by the regions’ long-gone neolithic peoples. What’s there is fragmentary; partial evidence of a way of life and a system of beliefs that can be guessed at and even systematically studied but can’t be put together again. The markings are mysteries, and considering them has taken Thompson beyond the technical questions of painting and printmaking into inquiries that range over archaeology, prehistory, anthropology – even, as his title suggests, metaphysics.
As he says, life is movement, everything’s in flux, and stability, not disorder, is the rarity that breaks the pattern. Somehow these little pictograms of the past have got Thompson thinking in very large ways, and crossing disciplines as if their borders don’t, or shouldn’t, exist. On a wall plaque he quotes from the book “The Fragment: An Incomplete History,” edited by William Tronzo: “According to one of our best guesses, the universe began with the colossal motion of an immense act of fragmentation – the big bang, a construct of theoretical physics – that nonetheless makes poignant the persistent idea of a return to unity in the arts, religion, and culture. This leads us to see the fragment not simply as the static part of some once-whole thing but as itself something in motion. … It is the fragment and the fragmentary state that are the enduring and normative conditions; conversely, it is the whole that is ephemeral, and the state of wholeness that is transitory. Any walk through an art museum will support this thesis.”
“Linear Metaphysics” breaks neatly into three 15-piece segments. The first and most immediately engaging is the arrangement of 15 uniform-sized gouache mixed media prints on paper, with acrylic added, that respond most directly to the Neolithic markings. They’re both elemental and sophisticated: scrawls in umber, browns oranges, the colors of earth. Lines and rounds, shapes and marks. Map-like, terrain-like, village-like, person-like. Animals. Beliefs. Systems. Questions.
On an adjacent wall are 15 ghost images – intaglio blind embossings pounded onto clear white paper, the after-impressions of the 15 pictographic prints. From a distance they look blank. Up close their blankness is rippled cartographically, like subtle topographical maps. Nothing disappears. Marks leave their own marks, echoes that are barely seen.
The third category is a set of 15 very free-flowing, abstract, and vibrant-colored acrylic paintings that suggest supple flesh to the prints’ skeletal sense of line and structure. When he’s working, Thompson goes back and forth from paintings to prints, letting them germinate and speak to each other. “The stratification or layering of time is of particular interest to me as a contemporary artist,” he said.
And time, as Thompson stresses, changes things. From another wall plaque, this one quoting from Hilary Mantel’s novel “Wolf Hall”: “England is always remaking herself, her cliffs eroding, her sandbanks drifting, springs bubbling up in dead ground. They regroup themselves while we sleep, the landscapes through which we move, and even the histories that trail us; the faces of the dead fade into other faces, as a spine of hills into the mist.” It’s reminiscent of the legend of Camelot, with its one brief shining moment before folding in on itself and disappearing, leaving only elusive traces of itself.
The titles that Thompson gives to the individual pieces, created in 2011 and 2012, are telling: Regnenses, Setantii, Ancalites, Belgae, Cantiaci, Bibroci, and so on. They’re some of the earliest recorded names that ancient Greek and Roman historians gave to the Iron Age people and places of early Scotland and Britain. These namings, too, are fragmentary, likely not even what the people called themselves but designations created by the historians. This, too, is elusive and fragmentary. “I considered the successive waves of persecution suffered by these ancient tribal people whose spirituality, identity, and shared humanity were so immersed in the land, sea, and cosmos,” Thompson said.
If that consideration comes across as fragmentary suggestion embedded in the surfaces of his paintings and prints – well, that’s the way the universe works. We’re in the middle of a giant guessing game, and we’ll never get it right. Better to embrace the game than bemoan the lack of answers. And to realize that in a curved universe, looking back and looking forward can be the same.
“Linear Physics” has just three days left: today, Saturday, and Sunday. Closing at the same time is an exhibit of work by senior art majors at Willamette University. The Hallie Ford Museum of Art is at 700 State Street in downtown Salem. Hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays and 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays. Admission at the door is $3 general and $2 students (13+) and seniors.