Bob Thompson’s vibrant scenes resonate with an unplaceable familiarity, recalling canonical Western paintings but with more dreamlike and largely inscrutable narratives. Monsters, featureless figures, jazz musicians, and processions of animals replace religious figures; references to contemporary events infiltrate mythological tales; bold, flat planes of color abstract realistic classical compositions. Under Thompson’s hand, a Fra Angelico composition of a beheading becomes the scene of a lynching, and Nina Simone inhabits a Gauguin-esque landscape.
A particularly potent example of Thompson’s approach is his 1965 painting The Carriage, currently on view in “This House is Mine,” the first major exhibition of the artist’s work in twenty years, at the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art. The canvas references Nicolas Poussin’s Autumn: The Spies with the Grapes of the Promised Land (1660–64), a depiction of an Old Testament story in which two scouts sent by Moses return from Canaan carrying a load of oversize grapes, figs, and pomegranates. Since other scouts had returned empty-handed, convinced that the land would prove impossible to conquer, this fruit symbolized for Moses the dependability of God’s word; in later interpretations, the grapes, hung from a wooden bar, came to signify the body of Christ and coming salvation.
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Thompson’s otherwise idyllic landscape twists this Biblical scene by replacing the fruit with the legs of a human slung over the pole that the men support between their shoulders, perhaps hinting at the violence tied to conquering another land. While the three living figures—the scouts, with their exaggerated stride forward, and a woman in the background balancing a pot on her head—are all rendered reddish orange, the hanging body is bluish; whether this is to emphasize its status as a corpse or to designate race seems intentionally ambiguous. The body hangs like a side of meat, its backside exposed, far less pure than the plump grapes standing in for the body of Christ. The death and treatment of this unnamed person as bounty brought back from a hunt makes Poussin’s landscape seem not harmonious, but ominous. Its apparent abundance, Thompson’s iteration suggests, rests on mundane acts of violence.