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Paintings That Are All Muscles and Armor

BILL THOMPSON makes tough paintings. If they look or feel a lot like sculpture, it is because he is as much, if not more, a sculptor as a painter. His most recent body of work, however, is all paintings. They have a thick skin. It is the surface more than anything that characterizes this work. It is what I am left with. Not so much the bold, geometric shapes with their razor edges. Nor the planes of a single color with strains of other colors bleeding up from underneath. No, it's the no-wax sheen on the troweled exterior. It feels plastic. Toxic. It gives the paintings an urban grime.

Without this technique these paintings might certainly fly. The contour edges of his shapes have his real touch. He makes a point of saying that they are painted by hand. It is clear that this is what really turns him on. They take wonderful turns and then head out into a fast straightaway. At a distance this is very powerful. In close, I get hung up on what seems a labored and artificial formula for grounding the work. It is all muscles and armor. These layers of paint that would presumably give the pa i

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nting depth, end up instead acting like masks that obscure and bury it.

That's what I mean by tough paintings. They make me aware of the Teflon surface, and that I am on the outside. That he scratches away at it only reinforces its dominance. What is painted on this surface is different from what is underneath, if there is anything besides layers of color, and presumably there isn't. The image we see seems stretched over another object. What that is I don't know.

The fairest of what Bill Thompson offers in his paintings culminates in "Wave." On the left side of a blue space a white shape billows out and tapers into the lower left-hand corner; it is full, light, and at rest like the wing of a perched dove. The blue around it is like the summer sky, rich Mediterranean azure with a hint of crimson. This painting breathes, and takes our breath away. It allows itself to be buoyed by color, when most of the other paintings rely on black and white.

If Bill Thompson's work is tough and urban, it is also conservative and blue-collar to a fault. At the beginning of the century this kind of formal, hard-edged abstraction was impossibly radical; but to close out the century it is hopelessly reactionary. It's no longer a vision: it's an institution.

Today painters like the master Leon Polk Smith, keep it alive with startling poetry and invention. Bill Thompson gives us rhetoric, slogans, and a dull work ethic instead. Suppressive, withholding, emotionally clamped, it clings to the weight of material to give it strength. Sculpture is by nature earthbound, but paintings can take us anywhere.

Bill Thompson's bravest hope lies in his sleek contour edge, free to fly, free to race like the "Wave."

This series showcases artists at work. Each essay is succinct, introductory, and captures are in motion before labels are applied.

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