Allegro in Spruce
Mildred Thompson's sculptures are like frozen tree-spirits in classical Greek mythology--half-close your eyes and stand back from a cluster of them and you could almost imagine the room was filled with figures that are half-human, half-tree, but all energy trapped beneath the wood surface. This exhibition in Hilles consists of smooth-oiled spruce statues and murals with names like Frozen Banner or La Primavera or Full Orchestration. They are abstractions of abstractions, the work of an artist who declares "I never knew an artist in my life". They are a perfect symbiosis between function and form.
They have been sponsored in honor of last February's Black History Month by the Afro-American Studies department and the HRBAS. The African and Western forces spurring on Thompson's art seem apparently at harmony with another. For these works are for all humans, created by a black artist who would rather devote energy to reaching people positively, than by protest. As a result, they seem warm and very approachable--the kind of art you want to touch and hold, as well as see.
Thompson returned in 1974 from a self-imposed exile in Germany, and is now an artist-in-residence in Tampa, Florida, where she practices her philosophy that art should be a lifestyle and strives to make art accessible. There she plans works that are on a large scale (one sculpture planned will be four stories high), but that nonetheless invite rather than repel people. Similarly, the sculptures in this exhibition manage at once to personify music with their rhythmic compositions and to feast your eyes with more substantial fare--knotty wood with the nails and lumbermarks still showing. This self-conscious structure belies the seemingly organic and hence (you might have thought) unconscious "growth" of, say, the bud-like forms at the top of La Primavera. This is a tall square column, 9-10 feet tall with cut-out semi-circles of wood interlocked in a restrained yet powerful abstraction of spring. It seems like a plant about to blossom, with tremendous energy beneath the surface of a green bud--enough to create a flower.
A smaller work, Voices, has a completely different spirit to it. It is on a more human scale, five or so feet high, and amongst the forms used to make this "busy" composition (compressed into a base about a foot or so square) are cut-outs remarkably like the cross-sections you see of the human tongue in a biology textbook. It would be easy to see this sculpture as a sort of satire of speech: the forms overlap like conversations do at a cocktail party. And as you walk around the piece it is as hard to decide which angle it looks best from as it is to decide where to stand in a crowd--you move and one form overshadows the ones next to it, just as one voice takes over from another as you walk around a party.
These works pull the space through the spaces between them like invisible thread through a needle. The general effect is that of a series of soft-cornered 3-D mazes that you could explore infinitely. Full Orchestration is still another example of Thompson's incredibly intricate composition. It reminds one of a magnified living cell with segments of the outer wall cut away to show the inner workings, in all their complex relationships.
Requiem, however, may well be the most memorable object in this collection. There is something in its lines that transcends without forgetting its original wood. That is, there is a soaring upward movement to the composition like a requiem sung to exalt and commemorate the dead. It echoes of a Gothic Cathedral's flying buttresses, and yet it is all on a small scale and an observer could either wax metaphysical about such images or simply enjoy Thompson's wood-craftmanship and skill with pattern.
You leave this exhibition struck by a mixture of primitivism and sophistication. These sculptures have all the energy of children's art, excited without a trace of self-doubt or self-consciousness. And they have also that elegance and grace that is supposed to compensate an adult for losing that initial confidence. Where Mildred Thompson shows her art is chiefly in this combination of what others would call opposites into a spare, yet memorable, artistic statement.