Art: Wednesday, December 26, 2002
Feel and Streams

Richard Thompson re-imagines fly-fishing as a metaphor for life.


A fine farewell to the holiday season’s crushing embrace is a trip to William Campbell Contemporary Art, where Song & Dance, by Texas artist Richard Thompson, is celebrating summer. The sense that nature is best enjoyed when the stream is placid, the sun is warm, and the flora and fauna are spectacular (and not when the snow is heavy) runs throughout Thompson’s mixed-media poems to one of the most Zen-like of all outdoor sports, fly-fishing. After taking in this exhibit, a keen viewer may feel as if blessed lazy days are right around the corner.

In the title work, fly-fishing becomes an essay in spirituality. Prancing around a fisherman situated near the top center of the huge four-paneled oil painting on birch wood, golden dragonflies of all different sizes glow like sprites against the deep, warm cerulean background of a stream at night. The insects appear to be as oblivious of their predators — two trout popping up out of the blue — as the fish are oblivious of their predator, the fisherman. The entire scene is the “circle of life” for contemplative unhurried types. The underlying theme: Might as well enjoy your time on this planet while you can and not worry about your inexorable demise — life is just too damned short. Scattered throughout the piece are a handful of clocks with black frames and white faces, constant reminders of Father Time’s childlike enthusiasm for chasing us to our graves.

Inexplicably, the clocks — and the vases and tables that can also be found in this piece — look as if they belong in the outdoorsy environment. There’s just something about the juxtaposition of furniture and a nighttime landscape that works. Maybe I say this because I can too strongly envision “Song & Dance” as it occupies wall space in a fancy living room in Arlington Heights, and Thompson has saved the painting’s new owner the trouble of decorating the space around the piece by providing the décor. Or because I think fly-fishing is such a bourgeois pursuit that a fly-fisherman’s bringing the contents of his house to “his” river makes a weird sort of sense. Whatever the reason, I like how the artist tries to inject a little magic into his work; Spielbergian fantasy is always welcome here in PG-13 Galleryland.

The fly-fisherman’s tools are a lure, a fishing pole, and a reserve of infinite patience; Thompson’s are a deft imagination and vibrant palette. The struggle for survival in “Song & Dance” is waged primarily in blue, but there’s one panel of the four that is not part of the larger narrative and is consequently not bound to adhere to its color logic; it’s the first panel on the left, and it’s awash in verdant green. That old adage about wearing a green shirt to get people to notice you comes to life here — this image of three gigantic lime-green fireflies hovering over a lush plant simply keeps your eyes locked on all the action. A large green vase split perfectly down the middle by the far right-hand edge of the birch board neatly frames the piece — a little too neatly. Like a lot of other objects in Thompson’s work, this vase lies as flat as a tv screen. The decision to place this object where it is could be seen either as 1) a concession by Thompson the art professor to the rule of Conservative Painting 101 decreeing that good paintings must be neatly framed; or 2) a thumbed-nose by Thompson the artist to non-narrative painters who thoughtlessly break rules without fully comprehending their meanings. The truth we’ll never know, but since we’re carelessly talking about an artist’s intentions, we can make one statement with some certainty: Thompson’s willingness to give depth to some images while rendering others in a childlike hand that doesn’t understand spatial dimensions probably means that he’s more interested in the rich essences of things than in their sometimes-tedious fixed realities.

One fixed reality that is flat-out non-debatable is Thompson’s love of fly-fishing. The artist has compared the sport with painting, and it’s easy to understand why: Both promote meditation; both help their purveyors transcend time and space; and both gladly suffer quixotic desperadoes on their lonely searches for Deeper Meaning. Whether or not the fly-fisherman in the paintings is Thompson’s doppelganger doesn’t matter — the fly guy is endearing, if only for his dour comportment. You can just tell that he’s never caught the big one, but you know he’s not going to give up trying. Half-assers generally stay away from demanding sports like fly-fishing. The hardscrabble-looking sportsman who appears in Thompson’s paintings is surely someone we can believe in.

This isn’t to say that everything about these paintings is believable. One aspect that leaves me wishing for more honesty is their cartoon-like quality. It’s almost as if by painting these images in his straight-forward style Thompson was auditioning for a spot on the cover of The New Yorker. All of Thompson’s subjects, like fish, rocks, cattails, and flies, look as if they’ve been painted quickly (though neatly); so no matter how peaceful Thompson’s packed tableaux may appear to be, the simplistic lines of his subjects almost force you to digest the content of the paintings speedily and then move on to the next image or work of art. Getting viewers to access and recall your images swiftly is great ... if you’re an ad man. If you’re an artist, you probably want viewers to linger over your images for a few seconds longer than it takes to recognize a Nike swoosh.

Song & Dance is an enjoyable yarn that may be guilty of a teeny bit too much imagination — it’s almost as if Thompson was flooded with so many great combinations of images that he couldn’t spit ’em out fast enough. Indeed, the artist manages to never repeat himself, even though he’s working within the relatively finite vocabulary of fish and vases (which he calls “vessels”) and dragonflies and men. Still, what you’ll likely take away from this exhibit, which has only a few days left, isn’t the bend of the fly-fisherman’s elbow in “... fly fishing the flats #2” or the exact silver hue of the trout’s scales in “Trout and Trout Colors,” but the spirit of a courageous if self-involved soul whose heels are always delightfully soggy and hot on summer’s tail.

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