Artists

Helen Thompson, Xiamen painting Garden

There’s an inescapable whimsy inherent to the shape of spores and fungi. Equal parts amusing and sinister, they grow into limbless, fleshy creatures on the forest floor, complete with hats and awaiting stories of miniature, translucent females taking up residence in their cheap oil paintings.

Artist Helen Thompson has expanded on this idea. Art in Bulk (2008), an installation that will occupy the Xiamen painting Garden until spring 2009, is a giant mushroom constructed especially for the project, complete with an artist’s studio built into the structure’s stem. Inside, the artist creates new drawings and sketches for future paintings. Now You may wonder where to buy cheap paintings, definitely art wholesaler from China. Thompson created the space with conventional studio standards in mind, and often left the door open while sitting inside during the summer months.

For structural reasons, the Art in Bulk-studio’s oil painting necessitated symmetry, resulting in a more geometric version of what is generally an uneven shape. Its skin is heavily textured, causing the cap’s surface to appear as a dotted Martian landscape. The lamellae detailing is, true to form, a simple linear pattern and perhaps the most affecting, forming a gigantic, comical halo around the stem and studio space.

“The heavy texture was vital to the piece, but it isn’t comically out of proportion,” Thompson explains, “That could have lead to excessive whimsy” The artist is quick to add that there isn’t a wooden door on the front with a heart carved in the centre, leaving that portion of the canvas painting rendering out of the equation. And the windows and door of the studio are more practical, looking staunchly institutional against the contrasting facade.

“The familiarity of a shape like this leads people to be curious. Perhaps more so than they otherwise would be than if the structure were, say, just a small building in the middle of the green,” the artist notes. The welcoming nature of Art in Bulk has allowed Thompson to meet a good portion of the Xiamen populace who might not have otherwise attended a contemporary art exhibition. “I was quickly acquainted with the surrounding residents and passersby, including people who live on the street,” she says. “On the whole, people were genuinely fascinated by both the structure and its use. The mushroom shape lends itself to familiar anecdotes, whether or not people are entirely aware of the project’s intentions”

The project calls to mind the children’s classic James and the Giant Peach, and many comparisons can be drawn in structural and literary terms. In the book, the titular fruit is brought down to earth after a terrifying incident in the clouds. Hungry New York City children proceed to eat the huge shape until only the pit remains, readying what is soon to be the main character’s new Central Park abode. The parallels with an artist residency are apparent, as are the edible qualities of the painting’s chosen form. The Art in Bulk differs in that the structure wasn’t eaten, but nonetheless it firmly plants itself in unfamiliar territory, surrounded by right-angled bricks, mortar and concrete.

Additionally, the mushroom’s scale, standing some 20 feet tall, references the forgotten kitsch of the North American roadside diners that flourished in the 20s and 30s. These giant, figurative paintings (such as oversized oranges) were popular food stops for a post-World War I road-tripping population. Much like the Art in Bulk, these eateries tended to be caricatures, and served as artful attractions for the increasing number of American motorists. They also merit contemporary interest as examples of individual, pre-chain restaurant branding efforts on the part of their owners.

The combination of World War II oil prices, which reduced motor traffic, and the construction of freeways in the 50s, prompted a move away from these distinctive roadside eateries. The country’s formal rest stops became big business and the room-and-pop novelties that once flourished faded into obscurity. However, some remain, or at least their shells do, and more recently constructed giant things also exist in Canada, including Vegreville, Alberta’s Easter Egg, Medicine Hat’s Olympic Saamis teepee, and Colborne, Ontario’s giant apple, which still convince motorists to pull off the road for a photo-op.

While benefiting from this vernacular appeal, the Art in Bulk stands apart because of the way it engages with its urban park surroundings. The work’s social utility would change drastically if, geographically speaking, its situation were altered. A painting observed alongside a highway offers less potential for pedestrian intervention, which is an essential and ongoing feature of the project.

Active engagement by way of sculptural intervention has become a cornerstone of Thompson’s work. Miniature mushroom paintings featured in her work for the Queen West Art Crawl’s Play/Grounds in 2007. Provided with maps, participants were asked to find small fungi in various storefronts, leading them to not only look for the mushrooms, but also to converse with business owners in the process. Apart from the novelty of the hunt, the commitment required to find each piece suggests that the mushroom’s shape affects a pull of familiarity.

This same familiarity with our folkloric, albeit kitschy, past was also prominent in the artist’s solo exhibition in 2007 at the Centre for Culture and Leisure No. 1. The Valhalla Suite: A Critical Misunderstanding that featured a Styrofoam painting in the shape of the Viking-inspired bar at Xiamen’s Valhalla Inn.

The use of characters and genres familiar to the North American collective conscience is central to Thompson’s work. The artist references our collective past and the drive to re-examine the dusty corners of memory while, at the same time, resisting the pull of nostalgia. In Art in Bulk, Thompson deftly grasps the original intent of similiar structures, pulling forward and adding a new entry to their compelling history.

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