studioNOTES: support for artists/ideas and information

Number 28

February - April 2000

Monte Thompson
Philosophic Furnace
mixed media with fountain, audio and video
9 x 3 ft.

Monte Thompson, Philosophic Furnace MONTE THOMPSON took a board about 30x36" and with oils carefully painted a green lion on it, red blood dripping from its mouth, devouring a yellow sun. He had freely copied the composition from Rosarium Philosophorum, an anonymous sixteenth century manuscript. In place of what was written on the original, though, he lettered: "As of one matter was made the thing. . . . All of our secrets of one image spring."

He called the painting The Green Lion. A few days after it was finished, he took it out into the woods far from his home. He placed it against a tree, walked back about 60 feet, aimed "at the heart of the image," and shot it 21 times with a 9mm Beretta, the same pistol issued to UN troops. It was not an act of anger, frustration, or, even, he says, of art. It was instead a meditative exercise meant "to develop the self through contemplation of the target. I took my time with each shot, probably spending a couple of hours or more to empty three clips of seven shots each." The picture is an alchemical emblem, and such "images in general, " he says, are used for meditation, "not unlike the use of mandalas in Eastern mysticism." He had been a bit worried about the painting splintering, but it hadn't, and he was happy "when I got it back to the studio. It looked the way I wanted it to. I probably should have shot it more." But it was finished and he hung it up.

While working on the Lion-and for nearly a year after-he was also building a large sculpture he called Philosophic Furnace. Based on general hermetic concepts, it is "an esoteric model of the cosmos, . . . the hermetic furnace, wherein the Magnum Opus takes place." He explains that, "It's an illustration and emblem of the relationship between the macrocosm and the microcosm. And there's not a detail of it that is insignificant. Everything about it, including the dimensions are symbolically significant." The piece is roughly cylindrical, 3' in diameter and 9' tall. "The numbers three and seven, and multiples of three and seven, were important to the alchemists," so, with the exception of things that represent the earth, "every dimension in this sculpture is a multiple of three or seven, mostly threes."

To make it, Thompson first constructed a wooden armature. Then, using two-part epoxy, he modeled and painted the sections to look like "either copper or iron, symbolic of Venus and Mars, the feminine and the masculine." The three-sided furnace base appears to be cast iron. He formed the word "Truth" on the front of it, and "Goodness"on one side, and "Beauty" on the other. He set this base onto three urn-shaped legs painted to look like copper, and put each leg on a casting of a "not-quite-a-shoe" form he had made. On top of the base he created a "copper" septagonal fire pit full of what appear to be ashes. In its center he stood a 15" ruler that supports-or so it seems-a three-inch-high "limestone" basin in which there are two short spouts of water, as in a fountain. This basin, an exception to the threes and sevens rule, is four-sided, because, "The symbology of four relates to the earth-four directions, four seasons, four elements." Onto the water he projected a video image of fire, "so that fire and water can occupy the basin together." Several other images appear on the water, too, particularly that of a winged object which is, in reality overhead, but appears as though it is reflected in the water. The notion, he says, is to show "that in our world we may perceive only a distorted reflection of higher spirit." To make the video he first shot a real fire, then superimposed on it "traditional images of alchemy [such as] the king and the queen in the bath . . . more or less copied from 17th Century alchemical emblems" and colored and animated on the computer. The images are accompanied by ambient sound (fire, water, air, and earth) created by Leroy Clark, who also helped with the video production, installation, etc

From each corner of the basin he ran strings up to a "golden disc with wings" that represents the spirit, and seems to hover above the fountain. The strings are striped red and white because, "the red is the solar color; white is the lunar color-yet another way to symbolize the two parts of The Process." These "lines of correspondence" between the flying object and the basin, as well as its "reflection" in the water (the video image), are inspired by an engraving from Aurum superius & inferius, aurae superioris & inferioris hermeticum, by Christian Adolph Balduin, 1675. The video projector is hidden within this flying disc, he says, partly because "the idea of 'projection' from the flying object into the basin fits with, and is even important to, the overall concept.". He also concealed it-and secreted the video and audio equipment in the ash pile-because even though he "loves the technology," he doesn't want people aware of it.

On the front of the winged spirit object he attached a painting of a red and white triangle superimposed over a square, painted in its four corners with scenes depicting the four elements. In the middle of the triangle he placed a small mirror inset in a circle in which a red-clothed male and a white-clothed a female stand with their backs toward the viewer. This design is considered a recipe for the philosopher's stone, he says, "and it's called squaring the circle. It's an alchemical sort of game: To take a circle and in it to put a square, and in that put a triangle. There's all the mystery of the Universe in that shape. And inside there is another circle which is the microcosm, Mankind. So the big circle is the macrocosm, the All, and the square is the physical plane, the four elements: fire, water, earth, and air. The triangle is the life upon the earth, three being the number of life-Spirit, Soul, and Body. This geometric symbol is sort of the Western equivalent of the Chinese Yin-Yang; it describes the universal dichotomy and the balance of that dichotomy in a greater unity."

Thompson made a faux-iron top to the furnace, supported by faux-copper columns, the bronze finials of which are hands, the results of life casts. One holds a sun, another a moon, and the third a cube (which represents the earth). Between these he built a dome that he painted in alternating red and white sections. To complete the piece he hung a red velvet curtain on the right, or solar side, and a white one on the lunar, or left, side. "It's traditional, I think, for the left side to be the feminine, or the direction of the subconscious. Jung pointed out that mandalas and things of that nature always are turning to the left, turning into the subconscious. . . . Anyway, there's a number of different ways that the symbolism in the piece can be interpreted, you know, in terms of masculine and feminine," which, he explains, is not about male and female. The curtains are black on the inside because it is "the color of the body; it's another very important color in alchemy" and represents "one of the early stages of the work, where putrefaction has to take place, which is another important concept in the cyclical story of death and rebirth."

While working on the Furnace, he also began another box in a series he calls Hermetic Theater. It's 13x10x8", smaller than most in the series, which range up to 24x18x16". To see what's in one of these wall-hung pieces, the viewer must peer through a lens in its front. "I'm interested in secrets, little secret artworks-one person at a time gets to see them, like looking through a porthole, like looking through a keyhole. Inside you see an illusion of something much larger, a whole room. And in the room are characters . . . of skulls and doll pieces and whatever, and they're engaged in specific action. The concepts of the action inside the boxes are always alchemical, because that's what I'm interested in-hermetic philosophy. So they're-I say they're 'emblematic.' There's a long, rich tradition of this kind of alchemical emblem making-kings and queens and that sort of thing, you know, dismembered bodies, and hermaphrodites, and all kinds of symbolic characters."

In his studio he has a collection of liquid-filled vials, doll parts, parts from model-making kits and toys. To begin a box, he starts "playing with these little things" to make characters, some of which he will sculpt out of plasticine and then casts into a permanent plastic material. "I might have an idea in mind. Maybe I'm dealing with sublimation, which is one of those steps of the Magnum Opus, the making of the sublime when the spirit rises up. I just start making little things . . . and then I figure out how big the box is going to have to be to hold them all and go on with that." He builds the box from luan plywood and creates fillets from putty to round out the inside corners. Then he paints the interior flat black and begins fitting in the characters and meticulously painting illusionistic space. He also installs various hidden lighting and projection devices, sometimes even a video monitor, to help create illusions-such as a doll's face that seems to be floating, but actually is just a reflection of the actual head (which is out of sight). At the rear of each box he makes a "window that you can see out of-a transparency, a photograph you can see through," which is lit from behind.

While Thompson is greatly concerned with the look of the things he makes, and pays fastidious attention to detail, he says what he does is more "like a laboratory process. I'm trying to understand in an interior way a tradition-an ancient tradition, and I'm exploring those concepts in my work. I guess you could say I'm trying to put them in a contemporary setting-updating with new language and new metaphors-but the same concepts. . . . It's just a different way of looking at the world that leaves room for spirit and soul, and I'd like people to understand some of these concepts." He thinks a lot about the three Platonic terms: Goodness, Beauty, and Truth. "But I use them in a bit of a different way than Plato probably did. For me, these things are the same thing as Spirit, Soul, and Body. Truth is the Body, it's physical, it's what can be agreed on by independent observation, experimentally, or science. That's important, but I think that in our world today, we put way too much emphasis on that part of reality, ignoring the other two-thirds of reality, which are value spheres. Goodness is Spirit, the social value sphere, and Beauty is individual, the Soul. Science can't tell us anything about value. If you ask Truth what the weather is like, she'll say it's 76 degrees, barometric pressure such and such, wind direction this, speed such and such. She can't even tell you if it's hot or cold. That's a value judgement. You have to interpret everything that you get from science, and you have to have information from somewhere else to interpret it. And that's where Goodness and Beauty come in. If you ask Goodness what the weather is like, she'll say, "Oh, it's kind of cold, not too windy." If you ask Beauty what the weather is like, she'll say "Great!"or "It's horrible!" But my point is that questions of value are some of the most important questions, and we don't ask them because we spend too much time emphasizing Truth, as if that's the end-all, be-all. Truth can tell us how to build an atomic weapon, but it can't ever, ever tell us if such a weapon should be built. That's really the important question."

Monte Thompson plans to finish the box and then do another and another, and says he doesn't know when that series will end. And, speaking of series, he sees the Lion as the first in the Hermetic Target Series. His work can be seen at the di Rosa Preserve in Napa CA (707-226-5991) or at his open studio in the Fall.
San Francisco CA, 01.10.00


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