A Monochrome World of Vivid Color

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A Monochrome World of Vivid Color

Using Automobile Paint, Bill Thompson Creates Intensely Square Art

First impressions are not always accurate. On entering Kitchen, an art gallery in Hannamdong, one is assaulted with colors that rival the color options for Volkwagen's Beetle. Then, nothing. Each minimalist painting in Bill Thompson's exhibit "Altered Flats and Nodes" is vibrant, yes, but square, in both senses. After a panoramic glimpse of a 35-centimeter-by-35-cm-by-10-cm "Sweetheart," a 35-cm-by-35-cm-by-10-cm "Zoe," a 35-cm-by-35-cm-by-10-cm "Lazuli," oh, and some deviants like the 38-cm-by-38-cm-by-10-cm "Persephone" and the 50-cm-by-50-cm-by-5-cm "Falcon," the eyes glaze over like so.

"Altered Flats and Nodes" is not a sales pitch by an automobile paint firm, but a "heretical variation of the monochrome," according to Mr. Thompson, 43. It just happens to take a little effort from the viewer to be drawn into his whimsical and elegant vision.

"Gazing into one of his pieces is like looking at the world from the back of an ambling horse," said Lee Ji-eun, the general manager of Kitchen. "It's like looking into another world."

The best way to be transported into this other world is to walk up close to one of the the paintings and gaze into it, intensely. Walk around the painting while maintaining eye contact. What leaps out is almost an optical illusion, a vision that hovers "between the inviting, rippling surface of a lake and the 'come-on' glossy curves of a Harley Davidson motorcycle," according to the Worcester Art Museum. The musem in Massachusetts included Mr. Thompson's paintings in a group exhibit, "Painting Pushed to Extremes," which ended in November.

In order to achieve the mesmerizing colors, Mr. Thompson carves a solid block of polyurethane with a grinder, then polishes it. He sprays the panel with 15 to 20 layers of automobile paint, starting with a primer and ending with a clear coat.

"What finally emerges is a highly polished and reflective enameled surface that exudes intense vitality in its presence," according to Kitchen, where the show will continue until Jan. 27. Incidentally, the painter wore all black during the opening reception at the beginning of December.

The surface of most of the paintings is curved. Automobile paint is reflective. The two together create reflections that are as distorted as the painting's surface.

The paintings require human interaction for the viewer to get a glimpse of a dynamic and ethereal world. Its sleek topography begs to be touched.

"The lush surface invites you in and then seems to look right back at you, or even behind you," according to Elizabeth Chiles, a curator at the Barbara Krakow Gallery. The Boston gallery hosted a Bill Thompson show in 1999.

"Zoe," "Buckeye," "Persephone" and "Lazuli" are pronouncedly curved paintings near an almost floor-to-ceiling window. Sunlight streams in through the 9.5-meter-wide by 3.5-meter-high window. The images seen in the paintings change, depending on the time of day. The saturation of the greens in "Zoe" constantly varies according to the angle of the sun and the viewer's line of sight. The same is true of the three other paintings.

The adjoining area contains the bulk of Mr. Thompson's paintings. "The Liberation of Monastral Blue" is three panels of varying dimensions positioned according to height. The largest painting is at the base with the smallest one on the top, playing with depth of perception. As the viewer's gaze travels up the blue paintings, the readings change because of the curved surfaces and the sense of a vanishing point. "It's like you're by the ocean, seeing the waves break," Ms. Lee said, adding, "You see all the colors of blue."

"360" also actively engages the viewer. The surfaces of the four reflective panels are angled differently. The result is a painting that mimics the viewer's face from different angles.

Mr. Thompson continues to play with the viewer in a painting called "Locket." Hidden in a corner, the two yellow-toned paintings at first appear identical. The second-take response is a realization that one is concave and the other convex.

"Body/Soul" is another painting with meaning beyond first impressions. Two contradicting panels, one is a deep red and opaque, the other is white and irridescent.

It comes as no surprise that Nancy Stapen, a critic at ARTnews, described Mr. Thompson's paintings as tickling the funny bone and engaging the mind. "How often does one find formally rigorous paintings that are also funny?" she wrote in a review.

Mr. Thompson arrived at the Boston art scene as a child prodigy. He began drawing at three and was featured in the Boston Evening Globe newspaper as a teenager. After two years at college, Mr. Thompson became disenchanted with education and painting and quit, according to Francine Koslow Miller, a writer at "The Print Collector's Newsletter."

After more than a decade of withdrawal from the public art scene, he re-entered as a serious, exhibiting painter in 1989.

"It took a lot of mileage to get to a point where I could do a painting without anything in it but color and texture," Mr. Thompson told "The Print Collector's Newsletter."

"A single color is not emptiness and is no less about something than a complex picture."

by Joe Yong-hee

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