By DEBORAH KRIEGER, SEPT. 2017
Lola Rose Thompson’s art doesn’t deal with meme culture —aptly summed up by Megan Hoins as a form of Dadaism—in any explicit way, but her approach to titling her works, much like the combination of text and meme image, is what makes her practice come to life. After all, an artist who uses the titles “Contestants On The Bad Girls Club Arguing About Who Is The Most Villainous,” “The Secret Occult Life Of Professional Basketball Players,” and my personal favorite, “This One Will Make Felipe Calderón Infertile Except On Thursdays,” is an artist who has both a sense of the political and an affinity for the randomly funny. When I try to describe a “meme” to someone who doesn’t know what they are, I like to say that they’re internet inside jokes of a sort, often involving pictures and text; the “inside” part is key: meme culture invites participation. And the title is as important as the image in Thompson’s work, the former activating the latter and demanding that the viewer take a closer look at what they are seeing. Sometimes it’s a dead end. Sometimes the title is a red herring, like the one invoking Felipe Calderón, and doesn’t have any reflection or referent in the work itself. But at other times, the title provides a lens through which the viewer can consider what Thompson has done, and what she might be saying.
Thompson puts it directly: “I think that words have the power to make an image—what you call it, and that’s something that we see oftentimes in the news and in tabloids.” Thompson also stresses her affinity for Gertrude Stein’s writing when it comes to titling her works, especially Tender Buttons, where the author describes “the objects around her—in the kitchen, in her house, these surrealist definitions. I was really inspired by that idea.” Thompson continues: “I think that’s also around the time I learned the word ‘metonymy,’ and I think it’s all related: this idea that you give something a name, and it becomes that.”
In a formal sense, Thompson’s own visual style is quite varied and often seems rather disparate, nearly devoid of any kind of continuity—or anything that would make you think that her crystal installation show (for example) and languid watercolors are by the same person—except for those titles. It’s an unavoidable cliché to say that she soaks up inspiration like a sponge. When she works on paper, her approach to color—flat and bright and neon—recalls aspects of Matisse and Gauguin (see: “Fern Witch,” and “Trying Not To Cry On The Dance Floor”), while she cites Marina Abramović as an inspiration in crafting her performance pieces (see: “Let's Stay Like This Forever And Never Move, After Marina And Ulay”). That piece, she recalls, was an project she did while at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she and two friends braided their hair together à la “Relation in Time.” The setting of this site-specific work was a historic old building in Chicago, where “we stayed there for two days and were braided together, and went to the bathroom together, and slept together, and rolled around in the grass together […] it was really fun. In the moment, it was kind of a nightmare, but looking back, things like that—that are challenging and strange that you would never do except in an art context—it’s a really good memory.”
In other works (both two- and three-dimensional), Thompson’s art-historical and literary interests declare themselves loudly and with intent. Her watercolor “Venus Admiring The Results of Extensive Personal Training” directly lifts and re-situates Velazquez’s “Rokeby Venus,” stranding the once-proud figure of Venus looking at herself in a mirror in a sea of white paper, the fullness of her form in the Velazquez now diluted into the ephemeral and fragile-looking watercolor. Where we admired Velazquez’s Venus, in Thompson’s interpretation we see her rendered small and unsure, and find ourselves pitying her. Other watercolors, like “Cupid Consoling Venus After Receiving The Results Of Her STD Test From Planned Parenthood” and “Venus Crying Because The Wifi On Mt. Olympus Is So Slow” reference, respectively, Titian (whom she counts as one of her absolute favorites) and Bouguereau. An earlier sculpture by Thompson takes Ingres’ “La Grande Odalisque” and recreates her on a tapestry-looking rug, fashioned entirely out of broken mirrors. Ingres’ painting is a romanticized fetishization of an Eastern concubine, and Thompson literally turns her into a mirror, encouraging the viewer to see themselves reflected—and implicated—in the objectifying gaze of the original.
She’s no stranger to Greek myths and Tolstoy, either, as with her photograph “An Attempt To Recreate The Pain Of Sisyphus” and her mixed-media piece starring dead moths “All Happy Families Are Alike; Each Unhappy Family Is Unhappy In Its Own Way.” The titles might not seem obviously related to the image, but upon closer inspection, “Sisyphus,” with its solitary figure staggering forward, hoisting a chair overhead, certainly makes the mythological reference clear. Likewise, “All Happy Families,” with its similarly-colored moths in various stages of decay, trapped under glass, suggests an uncomfortable scrutiny—of being studied closely as an example of Tolstoy’s “unhappy family.” In these cases, then, Thompson is doing what memes do—take an image from one context (stock photo, a paparazzi shot, a film still) and situate it in another, creating a joke for those in the know. That category might include you, or it might not. But the works are certainly fun to look at regardless.
Thompson’s interest in flowers (evident in a simple browse of her website) has resulted in some of her most zeitgeist-y and wickedly funny installation pieces, as well as her recent show at Los Angeles gallery LA Lodge, Flowers to Make Up for Everything. That show, which concluded August 19th, displayed many of her two-dimensional works, including watercolors of nymphets and arresting flower arrangements on black backgrounds, as well as sculpture. After the sudden deaths of her father and grandmother within the last two years, Thompson says, she developed her floral predilection: “I think it was an escapist route to make myself feel better by looking at and surrounding myself with beautiful things—simple, beautiful things. In a way, I had a moment when I looked at all this work and I felt quite surprised, because not only did people often say ‘wow, your work is so colorful and happy,’ but it looked that way to me as well. It’s just kind of strange, because I feel like I’ve been in such a dark place and I think my work has been a way for me to escape that darkness and try to make something in my life feel beautiful and light and not so heavy.”
Still, though, what originally drew me to Lola Rose Thompson were her flowery installations, which mainly consist of her arranging beautiful blooms she collects while hiking Runyon Canyon (the most LA-girl sport ever) into deceptively pretty “fuck you” statements, challenging the notions that femininity implies a lack of power or nerve. It’s a perfect spoof of the kind of California girl whose aesthetic consists of going to Coachella and wearing flower crowns and fringed white crop tops—a lifestyle Thompson heartily disavows. At the same time, they recall the flower crown meme that was popular on social media site Tumblr around 2013, where users edited flower crowns onto images of their favorite stars regardless of the context or whether these actors (and their characters) are the kind of people who would wear flower crowns. Adding flower crowns to characters like Hannibal Lecter softens what is hard, and writing “hard as a motherfucker” in flowers does the reverse: giving a soft exterior a core of steel. Thompson sums it up: “I think there’s afunny dichotomy in using such a girly and pretty material and writing something like ‘hard as a motherfucker.’” WM
Deborah Krieger is a graduate of Swarthmore College in Art History, German, and Film and Media Studies. She has been published in the Northwestern Art Review, Hyperallergic, and other art and culture platforms both online and in print. She was a recipient of a Fulbright grant to Vienna, Austria, where she taught English, researched contemporary art, and studied at the University of Vienna. She is currently a curatorial assistant at the Delaware Art Museum in Wilmington, DE.view all articles from this author