Out & About: Twice the party

The crowds mingle as Willamette University's Senior Art Majors show and James B. Thompson's endangered-water exhibit open. Party on.

SALEM – It was two parties for the price of one at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art three Friday nights ago, and if at first they seemed an unlikely fit, the partygoers almost immediately mingled and merged until you really couldn’t tell who was here for what, because everybody was taking in both scenes, and having a grand old time of it.

The occasion was the opening celebrations for two new exhibits, both of which continue at the Salem museum through May 13: the annual Senior Art Majors show from Willamette University, with which the Hallie Ford is affiliated, and which drew a young and brash and demonstrably exuberant crowd; and Water Is Sacred: Water Is Life, the latest solo show by James B. Thompson, a longtime Willamette art-faculty member and a mature artist at the height of his career. It was a bit of a time warp, but a satisfying one – young artists on the verge, trying things out; a master craftsman and broad artistic thinker exploring terrain he knows intimately, and still making discoveries in it.

Peri I. Hildum’s “Shattered New Surface” (foreground) and Miles Solomon MacClure’s “Growing Up, Growing Away (Not What It Looks Like)” on the wall on opening night.

All the accouterments of an opening party were here, and then some: the long table overflowing with free munchies (deeply appreciated by the students there to see their friends’ work); the bustle of people attired variously in student funky, old beatnik artist, Northwest casual, and Friday-night-out-on-the-town; the museum guards keeping a friendly but practiced eye on the proceedings to make sure nothing went bump in the night. Artist friends of the artists were on hand, among them Thompson’s fellow veteran Salem artist D.E. May, one of whose precise template paintings hangs just through a doorway into the museum’s Carl Hall Gallery and its fine collection of Pacific Northwest art.

Artist D.E. May viewing Thompson’s exhibition.

Predictably, the student art show, with work by eleven artists, ranged broadly in style, medium, and approach. The pieces tended to be fresh and exploratory, and the young artists on hand appeared excited to be at an opening of their own work. Variety was the spice of the evening’s life, with pieces that ranged from traditional imagery to moving images to a plugged-in 3D work that glowed and flashed like a neon sign on the Vegas strip.

A few steps away from that oddly congenial contraption, a little makeshift house built of spruce framing and many yards of red chiffon and embroidering thread was drawing a big crowd inside its open doors. Recalling my own participation long ago in constructing a womblike crawl-through environment in an old house that was about to be demolished to make room for a new college dormitory, I thought of walking in, too. But it was a popular attraction, and there was no room in the inn. Created by Nastja Nykaza, the gauzy house is called Homemaker: Home, and also includes, as its wall plaque notes, “17 months of my own collected hair and offerings from friends.”

Nastja Nykaza’s “Homemaker: Home,” suspiciously empty in this photograph.

In the far gallery, Peri I. Hildum’s Shattered New Surface, made of welded steel, clay, plaster, and paint, is a sculpture in three pieces, each on its own pedestal, of a bright-red torso rising from a twisted prone position in the first case to upright in the last. In each, it seems to be melting into a puddle of red. On the wall behind is Miles Solomon MacClure’s large installation of photographs Growing Up, Growing Away (It’s Not What It Looks Like). At their best his photos reveal a wry outlook and a canny sense of framing, with subjects sometimes seeming to slip almost out of the picture – a sleeping head, for instance, cropped at the neck against a dark red backdrop; someone changing clothes on the street, pants down to the ankles behind the partial shield of an open car door; a propitiously placed banana peel, lurking, waiting for an unwary foot.

It’s all very free and fun, not lightweight but restless and eager, trying ideas on for size: the work of bright young minds still looking for a place to land. In the central gallery nearby, Thompson’s Water Is Sacred: Water Is Life has a more rigorous feel, a seriousness of intent that is by no account dull but rather, in its own way, both engrossing and liberating. Thompson, who creates variously in paintings, prints, and fused glass, usually works in series of images rising from the same theme, and often taking him a year or more to complete. His interests range from the historical to the geological, to the ways in which science and nature and human beings interact, and to the human impact on the changing landscape. In this sense, though it’s radically different stylistically, his work has a kinship with that of other contemporary Northwest artists concerned with the danger spots between humans and their environments, among them Michael Brophy, James Lavadour, and Matthew Dennison, the latter of whom has a new exhibition up this month at Portland’s Froelick Gallery.

James B. Thompson, “Underwater Mangroves,” © 2017, ink, acrylic, pigment, shredded U.S. currency on paper; image size 9.5 x 12.5 inches, framed size 19.25 x 22.25 inches. Both the rectangle block at center and the ink scrawl below it are recurring motifs in this series.

Thompson’s work never seems didactic. It is, rather, an exploration of the visual and intellectual possibilities rising from a specific philosophical proposition, and it seems to lead him to surprises as he traverses its terrain. His artist statement for Water Is Sacred: Water Is Life states his intention – or perhaps more precisely, his starting point – clearly and succinctly:

 

We can live without food for days on end but not without water or we perish. Our bodies are comprised of up to 75% water. Two thirds of the earth is made up of water and yet most of the earth’s water and marine life forms are but a mystery to us. Every day water still provides us with myriad sources of food. Water freezes solid into ice, forms glaciers but can evaporate into thin air. Water exists above and below ground. Water can be dead still or flowing in currents, waves and tides. Water is clear and sweet in springs and aquifers but can be saline and salty in oceans, seas and lakes. Water drives down as rain and gathers in floods. It can rage as tempests and swallow us whole. Water can end droughts, put out fires and bring new life. Water is power when it spreads across land, percolates downward into the earth or rises up as a tsunami.

Water is at once a barrier and a mode of transport we must navigate. Water was the vehicle with which humans have developed trade, farming, communication, culture and language. Every culture has at one time or another revered water, used it in rituals and as part of spiritual practice. Its significance to early peoples can be read in the way it punctuated the landscape and how the ancients responded to its absence, presence, ebb and flow. Desert dwellers worshipped water deities in legend and song. Irrigation channels and wells were dug to access, divert and contain this life sustaining fluid. Dikes have been constructed to control it. Structures were built and erected through the ages to bridge all manner of waters.

Water is considered to have healing properties and is celebrated as a source of life itself. Water must break before we are born and it is into the water we return when the boat is pushed out. Yet we waste this precious substance and put it at risk to our peril. If, in fact, water is sacred and water is life – rather than a commodity to be bought and sold – then, what on earth have we done here and what is to become of life itself?

Whether this makes Thompson’s art political in the narrowly understood sense of the word seems less important than its role as a statement of his intellectual and emotional understanding of the condition of our shared space in the universe, and therefore as a base for the exploration that his art undertakes.

The opening night parties mix and merge.

You can look at his art, which in the case of this series often has a cartographic feel to it, and appreciate it for the vibrancy and variations of its colors, its textures, its rambling abstract shapes and movements, the persistent sense that something microscopically biological is occurring in it, the subtle variations from one painting or print or piece of glass to another. And always, the sense pervades that herein lies a mastery of craftsmanship. But knowing the wellspring deepens the experience and gives it a context that also lends a kind of philosophical urgency. This is my response, it seems to say, to what I am finding important in the world. This is what, as an artist, I can say and do.

One of the crucial decisions Thompson makes in this series is to include shredded U.S. currency as an integral element in many of the pieces. You could call this a political statement – the quest for profit endangers the long-term health of the environment and subverts the effort to conserve and nurture the ecosystem – or you could consider it a blunt yet pragmatic truth.

James B. Thompson, “Glacial Melt (I-IV),” © 2012; kilnformed glass four panels 12 x 48.75 inches. The occluded quality of the surfaces suggests small but significant changes, a graduation that might rapidly pick up steam.

Thompson’s art is both easy and hard. Easy because it’s attractive on its surfaces; he’s adept at making pleasing images, whether they’re fully abstract, as in this series, or contain vagrant unmoored figurative images, as they often have in the past. Hard because by nature they are subtle, turning on tiny changes and micro-decisions made during the process of fabrication. Two pieces that might at first glance seem almost identical reward the viewer, on closer inspection, with the realization of small variations, different tracks leading in turn to yet different tracks, like rivulets flowing away from the mainstream and creating their own new paths. In this way, Thompson’s art echoes the patterns of the natural world as it shifts and transforms: one decision or occurrence leading to another, and another, and another, until the world has changed. Water: whence?

James B. Thompson, “Permanent Green,” © 2017; acrylic, pigment, shredded U.S. currency on paper; image 9.5 x 12.5 inches, framed size 19.25 x 22.25 inches. The rough texture suggests geological forms.

It struck me, looking at these two very different yet strangely congruent exhibitions, how good and likely, after all, the arrangement was. Young artists, on the cusp, bringing energy and enthusiasm and a restless net of ideas and possibilities to the conversation. A mature artistic craftsman demonstrating how such ideas and energy can be focused, channeled, shaped into a vision. The art world has a long history of apprenticeship, of young artists working in the studios of master artists, bringing fresh possibilities as they learn the skills and techniques of those who’ve been there before. It’s likely that one or more of these student artists in time will discover her or his own vision, and master it, and in turn pass it along to someone else. That seems worth a party, or two, on some Friday evening yet to come.

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I wrote the essays for James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time, the catalog accompanying the 2016 twenty-year retrospective exhibition of the same name at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art. ArtsWatch published this excerpt from the book.

 

 

 

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