Disposable society

America's Backyard probes our racist past

Like many Southerners, Omar Thompson is obsessed with history. Only his past is far from the romanticized Tara version or the simplistic, passionless prose of history books.
Thompson displays an anti- nostalgia that is anxious to never repeat the ugliness of American racism. But the artist's work is in many ways guided by the same impulses that drive the genuinely nostalgic. Refusing to live in the present, Thompson is tragically fixated on the unshakeable influence of decades past.

In his mixed-media sculptural works on display at the Arts Exchange Gallery in Grant Park, Thompson references the assemblages of Robert Rauschenberg and the disturbing, race-issue subject matter of Michael Ray Charles' paintings. Using quotidian objects — rusted tools, car tires, windowpanes, baby dolls, newspaper photographs — Thompson surveys the equally business-as-usual racial violence of America's past. The more powerful work in this show, titled America's Backyard: Our History Assembled, uses these weathered materials of rotted wood and rusted metal to convey a tangible sense of history.

Thompson draws a connection between the material and the theoretical — for him, history is clearly just another discarded thing, thrown out like wood or metal when it is no longer appealing. It is that cavalier approach to the past that the artist — at times successfully, at other times ham-handedly — addresses in America's Backyard.

Devoid of humor, Thompson's assemblages are instead intense and earnest, the kind of impassioned work that can suggest an artist half his age, freshly educated on the injustices of the past. American flags (a recurring material in the work) are ornamented with words like "Nigger" and "Tar Baby" and hang in tatters, or are tied in knots to replace proud, patriotic history with Thompson's rage.

America's Backyard is more outraged and impolite than the sedate and sensitive lynching show Strange Fruit at Eyedrum. It luxuriates in its assurance that America is a boneyard whose flag constitutes a myth of inclusion for a portion of the public. Thompson addresses the communal, patriotic discourse of the post-Sept. 11 atmosphere, both explicitly in wall text and in repeated desecration of Sept. 11's most visible trope — the American flag. It's refreshing to see some response to 9-11 beyond lockstep jingoism, though the vitriol evident in Thompson's work suggests 9-11 was in many ways just another confirmation of the artist's consistently grim view of race in America.

Where Thompson gives up ideological ground is when the sense of personal agenda enlarges into shrill and obvious echoes of group assaults. In "Eyes Like My Mother," an assemblage of red paint-spattered black baby dolls, Thompson references the notorious 1963 bombing of a church in Birmingham that killed four children. Such work takes the viewer on a led-by-the-nose walk down history's lane that more discriminating, less intimidated viewers will resist because it leaves so little room for subjective and complicated responses. The belabored aesthetics of appropriated baby dolls doesn't help.

Instead, it is work that alludes to family history and to self, like "Nigger (My First Memory of Me)," an assemblage uniting racist epithets scrawled on an American flag with a fresh sense of humiliation, that proves far more challenging.

"Coon" is another prime example of the artist's finesse with material. Like much of Thompson's work, the piece is loaded with wrath coupled with an element of intimidation that's hard to shake. The power in such work is not simply picking over the wounds of the past, but also assaulting the viewer with a degree of power and anger that refuses to lay down and play victim.

"Coon" uses a blown-out rubber tire as a kind of monstrous head on which the letters "C" and "N" are written, the two "O"s substituted with eyeholes to evoke a hooded Klansman or an African-American avenger. Thompson's eerie figures suggest scarecrows, voodoo dolls or some raging id-creature, absorbing pain but also sending predators scattering like so many crows. It is in these spooky figures, with their shrieking red mouths and fright-mask features, that Thompson's work provides an original and provocative spin on the African-inspired figures that the artist has placed incongruously in the center of the room and which for the most part don't coalesce with the other sculptures in the show.

Thompson has probably bitten off more than any one man could chew in America's Backyard. But with a focused approach and a continued reliance on his psychologically loaded found objects and raging race- creatures, Thompson might just make some headway in his ambitious agenda to change perceptions of race in America.