Born Kansas City, MO 1981 / BFA, Kansas City Art Institute; MFA, Cranbrook / Lives in Detroit
Andrew Thompson considers art to be his “life organizing principle.” It is, for example, how he researches topics that interest him, how he collaborates with people he likes, how he remains untroubled by the question of what to do with surplus funds, and even how he investigates traumatic events from his past. Thompson believes there is no inherent meaning in life, and hence we must all create meaning for ourselves and those around us. It is a philosophy that propels him along a creative path of his own design, free from the careerist moves often considered essential in the game of being an artist.
Thompson typically prefers to work with recycled materials. He is conscious that art should first of all do no harm, and that by re-purposing landfill bound material his work already creates value. Everyone Says Hi (2015), for example, was an ice cave-like installation in a corner storefront constructed from surplus mail. The title references a favorite song of Thompson’s by David Bowie, one line of which goes, “I’d like to get a letter.” It is a supremely sentimental tune that is in tension with the actual origin of the envelopes, which as Thompson puts it, are “almost exclusively from bank and credit card statements, junk mail, and debt settlement offers sent to my house,” adding that “person-to-person correspondence from loved ones are rare, but they’re in there,” and that “the piece is a conflation of my desires, a wish list of wanting to have meaningful, intimate interactions, but instead being overwhelmed by, and embedded within, a culture of consumerism and credit. I want more than I give, I spend more than I have. All the creditors say “hi.”” Like much of Thompson’s work, it has elements of both comedy and tragedy.
There is an educational and discursive element to much of Thompson’s art. In 2016, he was inspired by an investigation of contemporary gerrymandering to explore how the congressional boundaries surrounding his Eastern Market home have evolved over time. The resulting work, Representing Congress: Detroit’s Belle Isle 1893-2013, used colored painter’s tape to construct the historic boundaries on the floor of a large temporary gallery space. The piece is simultaneously a criticism of the state of politics, a meditation on the fragile nature of contemporary American democracy, and a reflection on the etymology of the word draw – what does it mean to “draw” an electoral boundary in a time when they are determined by voter pattern modeling and optimization algorithms, and what does it mean for an artist to reclaim the action of drawing?
Thompson often invites others to contribute to the making of his art. For example, Clothes Pit: Since You’re Gone (2011) used clothes donated by friends to construct a fourteen foot high swirling “tornado” emerging from a clothes basket on the gallery floor; Redact Hamtramck (2012) was a large scale charcoal drawing / stop motion animation that showed how an aerial view of the eponymous city evolved from 1949 to 2012, and which acted as a framework to collect the memories of gallery visitors; and Five Years Ago (2016) in which recent arrivals to the city transcribed poems from two iconic Detroit writers – Detroit (While I Was Away) by David Blair, whose untimely death in 2011 was a major shock to the city’s creative community, and What Work Is by Phillip Levine, who became America’s Poet Laureate that same year – in a powerful metaphor for the continuous evolution, but fundamental resilience of Detroit’s cultural memory.
Thompson’s art is rarely confrontational, but often exhibits a deadpan subversive quality that works to deflate the cultural pretensions or rule set of a given situation. For example Untitled (Anton Art Center) (2012) showed Thompson circumventing a gallery rule that limited artwork height to avoid interference with the lighting, and The He-bops (Play Cyndi Lauper in the Style of The Clash) (2008) saw him expressing his, totally sincere, admiration for Lauper while gently undermining the seriousness of the gallery setting and “The Only Band That Matters.” The Goodson Street Garden Banana Processing Unit (2014) was Thompson’s contribution to a group show celebrating the humble banana, and encouraged visitors to deposit their banana peels into a composting pot for later re-use in the artist’s garden. Its unpretentious nature, and casual inclusion of elements of recycling and participation, make it a prime example of the apparently chaotic, but actually remarkably coherent, work of this prolific artist.
Steve Panton, July 2017