Sunday, December 2, 2018

Mildred Thompson at NOMA

Lately, the New Orleans Museum of Art is a study in contrasts. Even as the "Orléans Collection" of Old Master works originally assembled by Nola's namesake, Philippe II, the Duke of Orléans, overwhelms the eye, this more modest "Against the Grain" expo of works by late abstract artist Mildred Thompson, top, manages to evoke the subtle magic of the ordinary while remaining far more down to earth. Part of a generation of great, but often overlooked, black 20th century female modern artists, Thompson and her peers were often ahead of their time for the way their universal vision set the stage for the 21st century's global perspective. Thompson may have been the most eclectic and experimental of the lot, and this exhibition, co-curated by Katie Pfohl and Melissa Messina, and organized around a nucleus of starkly yet lyrically emblematic works acquired through NOMA's Leah Chase Fund, is her first solo museum show in 30 years. 

Born in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1936 Thompson, as a black female artist in the 1950s and 1960s, was ignored in New York but found success in Europe, where most of these “Against the Grain” works were made.  “Wood Picture,” 1972, right, suggests nothing and everything as homely wooden planks part to reveal a flash of royal purple in a composition that makes distinct visual sense while eluding didactic conceptual analysis. “Wood Picture,” 1966, above, a white on white composition of tautly arranged wooden rectangles, resonates a haunting silent music like a Bauhaus take on a Diddley Bow composition. A silkscreen print, “Untitled (# 111),” may initially suggest pristine European abstraction, but look again and it recalls African patterning, like a wildebeest reduced to its abstract essence. Thompson's range of associations reminds us that all humans are products of diverse cultural legacies built on DNA derived from global migrations that ultimately originated in Africa. As she put it: “There are recordings in our genes that remember Africa. If they are strong enough and we are free of false denials, they will surface and appear without deliberation no matter what we do." ~Bookhardt / Mildred Thompson: “Against the Grain” Through Aug 31st, 2019, New Orleans Museum of Art, City Park, 658-4100.