Augustus Thompson interview

"I've never had a clear vision of what I should be." We meet LA-based artist Augustus Thompson.

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i. Self Portrait, 9 x 12in, 2010
ii. From Young Color exhibition, 2011
iii. Good Painting Revisited, 2011, mixed media collage on canvas, plastic, paper and enamel, size variable
iv. Drawing Towards Sculpture V, IV, 2011, mixed media on paper, 9 x 12in

All images © Augustus Thompson 2012

Where did you grow up, Gus? 

I was born in the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia, raised in in Richmond Virginia and Chapel Hill North Carolina, then moved to San Diego for high school. I went to University of California Santa Cruz for college, lived in Barcelona for a stint, moved to New York after graduating, then San Francisco, now here in LA.

You've moved around a bit – do you find this helps with your creative process? 

I've been looking for a comfortable place, to not have to worry about income too much while chiselling away at what my work is to become. I've moved around a lot for this reason, and LA is where it's at right now. Anyone can afford it here and there are tons of shows to see. 

What did your folks do?

My father started a wine distribution company, The Country Vintner. He now works in futures. My mom is an amazing writer.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up? 

Early on I just had hopes of becoming Black somehow. I've never had a clear vision of what I should be.

What were your school years like?

I went through many different systems, partially due to my family's turbulent finances. Private school in the beginning; public school through the end. Both of these worlds have influenced how my life and personality have played out (collared shirts vs JNCOs). 

"I love New York so much – getting materials and making work there when you don't have space to do it can be tricky, but jazz is in the air."

Was art always important to you during these years? Did you have any other creative outlets? 

Skateboarding was the first activity that got my friends and I out in the streets and exposed to a little dirt. I started surfing when I moved to California when I was 15 and I started graffiti (remaining nameless) very late compared to my comrades. I remember drawing on my surfboards with paint pens but I didn't know anything about art until college ... I went to UC Santa Cruz and discovered art. I graduated with a BA, with no specific focus. I loved trying new things each term. 

What are your main influences, outside of art?

Dancing. The potentials of casual everyday fashion. Also, right now, finding obscure music online which is new to me. I just erased everything that had been on my iPod since college – very liberating. I guess, in general, anything in daily life that can provide butterflies when thinking about the potential of a creative life.

That's interesting... What made you decide to change what you were listening to? 

I was always sort of embarrassed when my musically knowledgeable friends would browse my iPod, as my music is a representation of my taste, like a book collection. The things I still had were not of interest to me anymore. I only listen to Felt right now! 

What are your influences in art? 

My friend Chris Lux and I moved to LA at about the same time. His paintings are amazing and my dialogue with him is priceless ... Chris just introduced me to the colour of Howard Hodgkin – very wild abstract emotional landscapes.

Sterling Ruby is very important to me; he has handled the problem of Postminimalism in a gorgeous way. And I've recently discovered Steven Parrino, who mastered this aesthetic that all of my lazy generation of painters (including me) is trying.

The scenes of Edouard Vuillard, Matisse, the subtle flooding of Luc Tuymans... The chaos of Jonathan Meese is very appealing to the inner performer in me. Reena Spaulings out of New York is doing some conceptual shows that are fun. I've been reading up on the Omega Workshop, a group in England started at the beginning of the 20th century that blended decoration and fine art. Utilitarian art is very real to me right now.

What are the differences between showing in New York and showing in LA?

Ed. Varie in New York was amazing to me. I had a place to sleep for close to a month and, just from being there, got hooked into doing another pop-up show there. I love New York so much – getting materials and making work there when you don't have space to do it can be tricky, but jazz is in the air. 

In LA, one has space but you have no idea if people will come to the show; it depends on what else is happening that night. Everyone is driving, so you hope that people can make it. 

'Ultimately what I look for is visual poetry ... I welcome surprise.'

'Young Color' seemed rather eclectic in the use of mediums and installation; was there a strong foundation that integrated the show? 

The work for Young Color was mostly improvisational, made in about a week. The watercolours were previously made and framed, but the sculptural work was an exploration of my attraction to quick and strong colour and form. I guess the work could be considered bordering on design and art as there was no conceptual motif besides what I wanted to see exist and what I could piece together in such a tight amount of time. The show was in the basement of a fashion expo that will remain nameless, which prompted my use of textiles... A collage reference was made to Tracey Emin, who has made biographical art works from fabric. I think it turned out very strong – and they were serving free bourbon and guacamole just upstairs.

Your curation was really engaging as well – especially your use of contrast, such as the portraits sitting on cups or the portrait resting on a bag full of shredded paper. Is there an underlying relationship between the objects and the art works? 

Propping paintings on blocks has always been something I've loved to see with larger works. Those iconic New York coffee cups that I propped my works on were all cups of coffee I had consumed, so I felt that they could be just as intimate to the work as the paintings, and the New Yorkers who would see the show. I am also interested in seeing how pictures can come out of frames and be three-dimensional. Good Painting Revisited, which was placed on a spray-painted plastic bag of shredded paper scraps, was exactly how I thought the painting should be seen but something I hadn't envisioned before I had found the bag of trash, if that makes any sense. Ultimately what I look for is visual poetry with no disposition that must be known to understand the work – I welcome surprise. 

The imagery in your collages seems quite iconic – was there something you were quoting or transforming within the established photographs?

Those collages in Young Color were very rapid exercises using Ikea coloured frames. The work was somewhat influenced by Elad Lassry's work but obviously not as calculated. When I look at contemporary work online I can't help but be reminded of my social status, and my limited access to materials is a part of this. I must use what I can afford. And I think artists have always tried to transform what they have access to. The collages were made from books I bought from a man off the street and an art magazine the gallery had – which coincidentally contained an article on Tracey Emin.

Your street work uses a lot of black-and-white yet your studio work is often more colourful – is there a reason for this?

Working in the street it makes more sense to simplify the colour scheme for efficiency. As a studio artist, colour is a very important aspect to swim around in. It can hold a painting up, and provide the emotion behind the form.

What are you working on at the moment?

A lot of blue work and some new works on paper. It has been a while since I painted portraits and I thought I wanted to stop for a while however they are back in my thoughts. Larger paintings, sculpture and performance are to come. I just collaged a refrigerator with vinyl stickers, which was very exciting. Oil paintings are new as well. 

What's next for Augustus Thompson? 

Reading, thinking, kissing, surfing, painting, and a show with Chris Lux this summer. We are going to put our souls on the line.