“I want to take a viewer somewhere”—Roland Thompson
There’s something that in theory can happen to any artist, but is particularly wonderful when it happens to one who has chosen an arduous path: one that imposes some external standards of its own on the craft of art making. Whether religious, political, academic, or something else, perhaps something personal, the arbitrary demands of the chosen path can lead the artists who adopt it far away from the thing that drew them to art to begin with. Then, after years of struggle with this alien procedure, which may have been done quite successfully, one of them, someone like Roland Thompson, abruptly returns to his true self. It may not be a happy moment for everyone, especially the collectors, critics, and friends whose sensibilities grew along with his progress during the intervening years. But for the artist, what follows is a miraculous rediscovery, the joy of which far surpasses the prior success.
Of course, something of this sort has happened to Roland Thompson. Normally I prefer to focus on the art, rather than the biography of the artist, but in this case some reference to his past must come first. A Utah native, Thompson earned a BFA from BYU in 1998, followed by an MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2001. Like any proper academic, he taught pretty much from the beginning. In an era when few painters can earn a living entirely with a brush, the choice of day job can be crucial, and academia particularly perilous. Thompson did succeed as a gallery artist, but his academic bent shows not only in looking back over his first 15 years of artworks, but in his conversation: he has a clear understanding of what he does and why, and he can explain most of the issues he deals and has dealt with.
But then, apparently rather suddenly and almost certainly irrevocably, it was as if he’d awakened from a dream, or else something he’d never fully forgotten refused to be ignored any longer, and he had to finally address it. Thanks to those 15 years of academic practice, Thompson can recount the transformation that followed with the cool precision of a psychologist analyzing a psychotic break. He describes his previous work as “minimalist” and “hard-edged.” Done with thin, bodiless paint on geometrically shaped aluminum panels, its loyalties are largely to cerebral, rather than emotional experience. The technical demands, however, are daunting: “Cubi” (2017) is composed of a field of triangles the mind interprets as identical in shape and size, when in fact no two are precisely the same. Instead, they graduate in both dimensions and tint in order to generate an illusion of perspective. This semi-sculptural object and others like it are visually voluptuous, the pleasure in the message being not unlike that of suspending disbelief at the theater or in a movie: convincingly fooled while aware of the master at work, creating the magic.
He compares his new work to Abstract Expressionism, though contrary to the anonymous joke, these paintings actually are both abstract and expressionistic. The human interconnections that were suggested diagrammatically in the minimalist constructions are here made real, first between the artist and the viewer, and than by extension between members of the audience. These are paintings that can be studied in solitude, but that could come alive when shared with a friend. One here in particular might help newcomers to hear Thompson’s voice more clearly: he chose the title of “Squaw Peak Hike” to confirm its origin in his own experience, along with specific landscape memories encapsulated in it. Once these natural elements become familiar to the viewer, it becomes easier to translate his rich vocabulary of marks, gestures, and textures into natural abstractions.
It would take some study of the sequence in which they were painted to be sure, but it looks as though in the early days—a year ago—he was still hesitant to completely abandon the linear structures that he’d relied on in previous years. Some panels incorporate construction cues into the final work: in “Waiting Patiently,” for instance, there’s a grid that could have marked the latitude and longitude on a map, but might just as well have been used to lay out or reproduce the design from another source. It has a relief presence, so that in some places it’s physically present even when covered under later painting. Another artist who was present at the opening seemed quite taken with this effect. Several works stand virtually alone among the others: “Living Room Traveller” stands apart in substituting ornamental tropes, prominently a field of fleurs-de-lis to replace the solid colors used in distinguishing nations on a map. Such variations in form keep the collection from settling into the conventional pattern, in which different subjects are subjected sequentially to a single style of presentation.
On the other hand, in the large “Wind and Cliffs,” done this year, Thompson’s brush is fully liberated and his spontaneity clearly on display. There’s a balance between the colorful gestures on the surface—the facts of the painting, which the eye takes in—and the variously two- and three-dimensional images the brain may find, or the imagination choose to make of them. As the pattern is built by the artist, each added brushstroke upsets the balance of what has gone before, requiring further adjustments until the painter’s eye is satisfied. Rather than cover up this history, Thompson leaves it in place, like a dramatic story shared with the viewer. Gazing on the result, one can follow the ebb and flow of the painter’s progress in imagination, if not in fact.
As a trained artist and teacher, Thompson’s first audience has probably always been his sophisticated fellow artists in the BYU Art Department. All the more credit, then, for his accomplishment in bucking a system that, while it supports artists to a degree that the culture at large does not, sometimes restrains their own, individual impulses. His peers will have set a high standard, and while I can’t speak for them, he seems to have lived up to any reasonable expectation they may have for works that are relevant to the broad arc of their time, but also rewarding in themselves. Given that audience, Thompson should also have become accustomed to viewers drawing their own confident conclusions about what they see. In fact, he seems quite comfortable with it, even generously so. His is the perfect disposition for a teacher, and a better nature for an artist than many display: one that not only tolerates, but encourages personal readings.
Roland Thompson gives his students one invaluable bit of advice that, like good art, comes across partly through its meaning and partly through how it’s phrased. He might prefer to explain it differently, or not at all, but to me it sounds like it has to do with the importance of nourishing and developing the inherent potential in a subject, even while constraining the urge to inflate it into a thin or premature masterpiece. “Let your paintings unfold and implode,” he tells them.
Notice he doesn’t say “make them.” He says, “Let them.”
Informal Structure, work by Roland Thompson, at Nox Contemporary, Salt Lake City, through January 18.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.