Imagine growing up in a town created to be the ultimate tourist attraction for families visiting the Jersey Shore. There’s ample opportunity to chillax seaside, head down in your favorite comic book, or lazily leaf through pages of Walt Disney illustrations. Sounds about as idyllic as a Norman Rockwell cover for the Saturday Evening Post. This was Jesse John Thompson’s childhood. Though similar to his art, which he describes as multivalent, there’s more than one interpretation of his childhood.
Thompson grew up in Asbury Park, the New Jersey coastal resort town made familiar to many through Bruce Springsteen’s music. But he wasn’t living in a Rockwell painting and didn’t perceive his world as a sweet slice of idyllic America. He had an for the creative, different, disturbing and even ugly aspects of reality. Given his surroundings, perhaps he was simply conceiving reality in its full complexity, beyond the immediate appearances available to him.This aesthetic sensibility towards ambiguity, experienced in his childhood, also defines his art.
For example, unlike many of his peers, he wasn’t drawn to juvenile comics like Archie. One of Thompson’s most influential – and revealing – childhood moments was when he bought the comic Daredevil Love & War, by Frank Miller with illustrations by Bill Sienkiewicz, instead of Todd McFarlane’s Superman #1. “For whatever reason I have this affinity for the weird, ugly and uncomfortable, and a sort of distaste for the beautiful and lovely. There I am, nine-years-old, buying this sadistic love story told in collage painting,” Thompson recounts. Moreover, his comic book experience initiated an appreciation for the creative potential of narrative storytelling, a major theme in his art today.
Then there were those Walt Disney illustrations. “My friends were probably looking at cartoon characters and Donald Duck. I was drawn to the background image, the lighting and details.” Long before he began sculpting, Thompson was busy analyzing compositional elements with an eye for creative artwork.
Thompson’s childhood life has had an obvious impact on his art. In his most recent work, Dress-Up, he creates sculptures of overly cute children trying on life-casted adult limbs. Life casting is a process that involves making a mold out of a living thing – for instance, Jesse’s foot – into a 3D representation of the body part. The finished product is so accurate it even picks up small details such as wrinkles and hairs. This technique reflects his multivalent style that captures ambiguity beyond clear-cut dichotomies between traditional oppositions like beautiful/ugly and animate/inanimate.
In Dress-Up, Thompson decided to let the life cast dry without finishing it as an artist typically would. The result is a life-sized replication of a human foot that looks decayed. In his sculptures, the child gazes at the limb with a wide-eyed innocence. “I don’t like to be didactic about my work. It’s easy to make the connection of being weathered by life or brand new to life. It’s sort of like, the child has something they don’t understand, something with so much power and what happens when you start to wield that much power.” Dress-Up is Thompson’s first return to sculpture since Hung Out to Dry in Vietnam, which scored Best In Show by the Cambridge Art Association. It’s the relationship with the animate and inanimate that Thompson’s most interested in now: “Life casting happens, but sculpture is made,” says Thompson.
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