Language in Plastic: Pam Thompson's Sculpture
Pam Thompson's studio at the Fox Industries building in Hampden is full of the skins of things. She wraps objects—a coal shovel, a surfboard, a bicycle—in plastic and turns a heat gun on them, forming the plastic around them. When she removes the shovel or surfboard, what is left is not the thing itself but its description, its shape and size, its outer quality. It is as if we see hanging from the walls and leaning in the corners the word Bicycle, the word Grapefruit, the object one off, idealized in filmy plastic. Surfboard, we are told, Lawnmower, but the objects remain just distant, out of hand.
As a teacher at Goucher College, Pam is called upon to explain the meanings of art, its processes and qualities, to her students. Her relationship with language though, is complicated. As she tells me, "I struggle so much with language and writing, with finding the right adjective, and I'm never satisfied. Art is a struggle too, but there's a visual language that I get, that I accept so much more easily." For Pam, there is a language of space, of "thingness," as she calls it, and the skins of things around her studio are like the units of that language. The plastic film that makes up the outer shell of her bicycle tells her, and us, about the emptiness inside, gives us an opportunity to meditate on what's missing, a new way to think about "bike" by looking at its absence.
But if Pam is interested in the nouns of her visual language, Bike and Shovel, she is just as interested in the verbs. She tells me a story of when she was a child, helping her mother cook pudding on the stove top. "It was like magic," she says, "the way I stirred and stirred this liquid, and then all of sudden, it thickened. It was so fast." From that point, Pam was fascinated with emulsions, with chemistry, with the process of things taking shape, going from liquid to solid, or with things disintegrating, losing form. "I'm attracted to entropy, that borderland between object and not object, a perceived image but not quite."
Of course, if one is dealing with nouns and verbs, with subjects and actions, the next logical step is to put these words into combination, form them into sentences and paragraphs. In fact, this is an apt description of Pam's installation projects, works such as On Either Side of the Fold, an installation that was shown at the Villa Julie College Gallery. This piece was composed of many smaller units, "Pieta," "Tondo," "Beatrice," units formed sometimes of plastic, sometimes of "readymade" objects like tables and ladders, sometimes encompassing drawings made in, around, and even outside the formal gallery space.
"These works," Pam says, "can come together over the course of a year. Individual pieces find their way in and build up narratives." On Either Side of the Fold was, for Pam, both a reaction to a trip to Rome she made in August of 2001 and an exploration of the events of 9-11, which occurred shortly after. In doing research, Pam discovered that the radius of the famous dome of St. Peter's Basilica was the same length as that of the wing of the plane that crashed into the World Trade Center. Thus, she drew both the outline of the dome around the gallery space and a diagram of the wing on the floor. Added to this are the various other "words" that compose the piece, the column of lights that represent Dante's muse Beatrice, a ladder for the steps to the lantern around St. Peter's dome, a box of cigarette butts Pam collected once at the top. All of these elements form for Pam a visual storyline, an imagistic narrative of her thoughts, ideas and emotions of the time.
"I don't have a total plan for what I'm going to do," Pam emphasizes, "but bounce off ideas about what's going on in the world and in my life." Process, again, is critical, as is the flux of coming and going, story being built out of units of language that themselves are in flux, the plastic that makes up the words, and the meanings attached to them, changing over time. "It's entropy as an hourglass" she says, citing one of her favorite writers on the arts, the earthworks sculptor Robert Smithson. "There is black sand at one end and white at the other, and they mix together and become gray. But it gets interesting at the point where they are not too carefully mixed, but just starting." It's that moment of transition, the pudding hardening, the plastic losing definition, the story coming together and the words falling apart, that give Pam inspiration, a unique visual language with which to speak.
Photo of On Either Side of the Fold, Jeff Goldstein; all others, M. Cantor.