Palm, 2006. Found quilts, thread, and steel, 13 x 7 x 6 ft.

Justin Randolph Thompson: Shrines and Found History

Justin Randolph Thompson’s large-scale sculptures and installations are rooted in cultural history. Using an idiosyncratic vocabulary, his work unfolds complex stories by means of carefully crafted organic and geometric metaphors. Juxtapositions of old materials and new techniques create a synthesis of multi-faceted meanings inspired by pain and destruction in times past, cultural rituals, and sacred spaces. Thompson says that his work “aims to create a new vantage point from which to view elements of African American history and culture as contemporary issues, involving ideas and conceptions rooted in antiquity.”1 He adds that “living in Italy for the past six years, I am surrounded by a different, often conflicting, cultural tradition than that in which I was raised.” The recurring themes in his work manifest realms of the personal and public, as well as historical connections to African American culture and the African presence in Europe.

Thompson makes connections between art and identity, interweaving forces and events that have shaped concepts of group identity and African history in Italy. Some of his work draws inspiration from the anonymous black figures often found in the shadows of Renaissance and Baroque paintings. Conceptually he gazes over to the continent of Africa and emphasizes a shared history of slavery and ongoing racism in the West. His objects and installations are hybrids of diverse influences, melding various cultures—each contributing to a complex matrix of assorted variables, including class, religion, time, and nationality.

In giving form to his interests and ideas, Thompson cites Leonardo Drew as an important influence. For him, Drew’s ability to suggest age and timelessness through the weathered appearance of his sculptures (composed of discarded, ephemeral, and sometimes biodegradable materials) is particularly noteworthy. Thompson has also studied Martin Puryear’s sculptural union of Minimalism and traditional crafts and his formal embrace of oppositions, such as the play of interior and exterior or pristine geometry and organic irregularity. The history of the quilt, both in Africa and in the United States, is another focus of his research.

Thompson’s formal art training began in the summer of 1997, when he enrolled in the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s pre-college painting program. He went on to concentrate in painting at the University of Tennessee in 2000 and spent his junior year abroad in Florence, Italy. When he returned to Tennessee, the faculty told him that his work had regressed to a 19th-century realist style and denied him entry to senior-level painting. This judgment and Thompson’s refusal to accept it became decisive factors in his move toward sculpture. Studying anthropology with Faye Harrison fueled his drive “to paint on anything I could get my hands on, often using found objects…[or making] objects that seemed found, stained, and old.” As gathering and painting on disparate and unlikely materials became obsessions, they led Thompson to installation.

Walls lined with painted objects defined the space of his first installation. In the center, he placed his first cast iron sculpture. This intense act of grouping and reconfiguring materials was liberating, and his painted objects displayed an ability to intertwine two- and three-dimensional elements in a form that was neither painting nor sculpture.