Art of the party
Terry Thompson’s paintings draw on his days as a Baltimore club DJ
Published: June 27, 2012
Runs through July 21 at Galerie Francoise
For more information visit galeriefrancoise.com
Terry Thompson was trying to tell himself something. It just took him awhile to see it in his work. The local artist started to notice it a few years back, when his eye would alight to an archipelago of shapes and lines buried inside some of the paintings he was working on; he likens it to a hieroglyphic, a primitive rune that suggested parts of the human form. The shape was only a small element in the brush work he used to create a series of abstracted figurative paintings, but in Seven Days, his new solo show at Galerie Francoise, he’s magnified this small element into the main subject of a few of his canvases.
It crops up in works like the large-scale “Solo Dancer” and “Burning Man,” where, in a hot red, Thompson paints a few loose lines that suggest something like a human form, but one more suited to a cave than a gallery. The elemental articulation of these shapes are presented on lush surfaces: Thompson’s oil paintings have the fine edges and intense colors of magazine advertisements printed on glossy stock. And the combination of a somewhat primitive vocabulary on a finely honed surface lends the works a curious, inviting tension.
“Those hieroglyphic things probably are something that I’ve really been nurturing and working on for probably about 15 years,” Thompson says. “I was doing a lot of drawings like that but it wasn’t as defined as I have it now. I just kept doing them over and over again, and this thing kind of emerged, and it’s like a handwriting for me. It has circles that were basically a head, then one line, which was the arm or legs—sort of like what Keith Haring was doing back in his day. He just connected all the lines together and formed a self. I didn’t connect them. I took them apart.”
That shout-out to Haring nicely calibrates Thompson’s creative inspiration, which comes from areas traditionally outside the fine art world. For Haring, that was New York street culture in the late 1970s and early ’80s; for Thompson, it’s the club and dance music nightlife of his other creative enterprise as a house music DJ and producer.
The Chicago native moved to Baltimore in the early 1990s for a job after getting out of the army and graduate school, settling into a South Paca Street loft whose ample wall space he couldn’t afford to fill with purchases. Thompson, who took art classes in high school but is primarily self-taught, decided to do it himself, something he’d already been doing as a DJ. When putting on parties in storied and sometimes rhapsodized Baltimore clubs such as Cignel and Fantasy, Thompson would cut up and reassemble images from magazines into collages to decorate the walls. Over the next decade, he simultaneously worked on drawings, collages, and paintings.
Thompson is a tall, lean man, as comfortable in the business suit of his downtown day gig as he is rooting through his archives in his Clipper Mill studio. He pulls out an old sketchbook to reveal page after page of curvilinear pen-and-ink drawings that suggest the human form. These drawings laid the groundwork for some of his earliest paintings, which were abstracted figurative work.
He also spreads out some of the fashion magazine advertisements that inspired his early collage work. Collages were a more practical medium for Thompson early on. He used the women in fashion ads and photos as models, cutting up the pages that featured colors he liked—W, thanks to the quality of its paper, was his primary source—and created abstract portraits. They’re not photorealistic at all, nor are they indebted to pointillism or cubism for that matter. If anything, Thompson’s approach to color and form has echoes of Rufino Tamayo’s figurative surrealism, and Thompson’s compositions deliver a similarly musical mood. Thompson’s collages and paintings during this time were undoubtedly abstract, but the forms were his rhythmic response to the observable world: reality pushed through the black box that connects his eye to his hand.
In the mid-2000s, however, Thompson started noticing something else going on in his work. He began working on a series of portraits inspired by his DJ travels in the Party People series, a group of paintings that he unveiled at the Sub-Basement Artist Studios in 2007. “If you go to some of these dance events, you’ve got 20,000 people screaming under one roof,” he says. The paintings “are named after songs and they’re people that I have met, but they’re mostly about the rhythms and movements and emotions that come through that situation.
“And what I kind of discovered as I created these paintings is that they sort of had hieroglyphics in them, kind of figurative, realistic drawings inside of them,” he continues. “So what I did is I took those, and I brought them forth and I gave them colors and shapes so you can see them up close.”
These are the runic shapes evident in “Burning Man” and “Solo Dancer,” the interwoven forms practically embracing in “Climax,” and the stately figure occupying “Host.” Elements of that hieroglyphic inform two of the stand-out pieces here: the OCD-lyrical “Delano” and “Automatic.” These oil-stick-and-oil-on-canvas works are headstrong abstractions, seas of color washes on top of which Thompson applies an interconnected roadmap of his hieroglyphic’s elements—a line with a looping squiggle that could suggest a hand, repeated over, and over, and over—that becomes an organized chaos of color.
It’s not the only leitmotif running through Seven Days. The large show—21 pieces in all—focuses on Thompson’s most recent output from the last few years, but it is dotted with pieces from the past two decades and smartly installed to show how visual ideas echo through his vocabulary. In one corner of the show, Thompson’s approach to a portrait type is seen in five different pieces: “Cleopatra” from 1999, “Angel 1” and “Angel 2” from 2010, “Supermodel Collage 321” from 2003, and the mammoth “Queen III” from this year. Each is a portrait of a woman whose head and torso occupy the middle of the composition, suggesting the simple posture of sitting on a stool with her arms straight down in her lap.
In each of these pieces, Thompson abstracts the pose into a wine bottle of simplicity. Thompson’s fingerprints are evident in each variation, as if he couldn’t have hidden his touch if he had tried. “That’s how I approach everything—I let things kind of emerge,” he says. “I do what the hand wants me to do and what the eye wants me to do. I obviously have a lot of direction of where I want to go and ideas of what I want to do, but a lot of times the ideas are things that I have inside me that I say, ‘I’ve got to tackle this. This is something I need to get out before I forget about it.’”
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