H. John Thompson’s Trouble Light: An essay by John Vick
H. John Thompson’s Trouble Light
An essay by John Vick
How do we find our way in the world, metaphorically speaking? Do we set a course and follow it along, confident that we will reach our destination? Do we feel out a route, navigating slowly and tentatively from a known starting point to some unknown finish? Could it be there is no real way to be found, just the same inviting channels to pass through time and again, just a cyclical meandering that ends where it began? Or maybe that feeling of movement is not a change of place at all, but a change of outlook, as an anchored ship gains a new horizon with each rise and fall of the tides.
Questions and thoughts like these, though not the kind we usually like to ask of ourselves, are at the core of H. John Thompson’s latest installation, Trouble Light, on view at NAPOLEON from January 6 – February 19, 2017. The show comprises four sculptures that recount the deadly sinking of the LV-117 Nantucket by the RMS Olympic on May 15, 1934. This shipwreck—involving an actual ship traveling along a set course and another anchored in place—holds only minor historical significance, but Thompson’s presentation imbues it with both contemporary relevance and emotional pull. He examines the incident with a care for detail that brings us back to that moment and also underlines certain aspects of the event that still resonate today. Throughout, he expands the theme of navigation to great effect, suggesting that finding one’s way in the world may entail revisiting the past, including past tragedies.
For anyone familiar with Thompson’s work, his focus on a shipwreck should be no surprise. His 2014 installation at NAPOLEON, Holding Our Own, looked at the sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald in 1975 and the 1971 airplane hijacking by D. B. Cooper. Both episodes were mysterious and ended with loss, whether the drowning of 29 sailors or the disappearance, and presumed death, of Cooper when he escaped by parachute. Thompson’s sculptures and viewing apparatuses for that installation were haunting, but in a way that evoked intrigue not fear. For his current project, Trouble Light, Thompson maintains his interest in calamity and dramatic exploit, as well as his appetite for research, but foregoes popular legends for a lesser known story. This cleaner slate allowed him a greater flexibility to explore the past while also confronting his own anxieties, especially an uncertainty about his control and place in life. Viewers to the installation are invited to do the same.
Launched in 1931, the LV-117 Nantucket was a lightvessel, or lightship, which functions at sea the way lighthouses do on land. Its duty was to anchor at the southern edge of the treacherous Nantucket Shoals to help provide safe passage for ships coming to and from American ports. For ships arriving to America, it was the first lightship encountered, making it also the last one seen by ships en route to Europe. The Olympic, launched in 1911, was a commercial ocean liner—a sister ship to the Titanic, in fact—that traveled between Southampton, England, and New York City, thus passing the Nantucket on each transatlantic voyage. The two collided on a foggy morning when the Olympic, believing it was clear of the Nantucket, struck the smaller ship head on. Four Nantucket crewmen drowned in the sinking, and of the seven rescued by Olympic lifeboats, three died shortly thereafter. The captain, though among the survivors, died five months later from a related head injury. The Olympic itself was relatively unharmed, reaching New York and then returning to England before receiving minor repairs to its forward hull, even if it was retired less than a year later to make way for a new fleet of ships.
In Thompson’s installation, the demise of the Nantucket plays out it four sculptures that illustrate or imagine the moments that occurred before, during, and after the fatal collision. The centerpiece—and starting point in Thompson’s conception of the project—is called Big Big Big, a reference to severe wave warnings used on the reality show The Deadliest Catch. Suspended just overhead in the middle of the gallery, the work comprises a sheet of etched glass, about 7 feet long by 2 feet wide, surrounded by a wood frame. Two ship hulls carved in wood are mounted to its underside, representing the Nantucket and the Olympic as if seen from underwater. The smaller ship has been scaled down from 135 feet to just 9 inches long. Close by, set at a sharp angle, is a ship more than six times larger, its nearly 5-foot length signifying the 882 feet of the original behemoth.
Though the wood versions of the Nantucket and the Olympic do not touch, their imminent contact is understood. This is because Thompson’s composition feels less like a game of Battleship, with warships distributed across a static grid, and more like an abstraction by Kazimir Malevich or El Lissitzky, full of tension and anticipation. Limited details carved into each boat, like a keel or rudder, add to the drama by conveying just enough realness to humanize the scene without resorting to the obsessiveness of a model maker. Nowhere is that more thoughtfully, if subtly, realized than in the wood Thompson chose for each ship. Both are carved in fir, but the grain of the Nantucket is straight and tight, as we might expect of a steadfast ship anchored at sea, while arching cathedrals run from bow to stern in the grain of the Olympic, like water moving across its mighty underside.
To show what happened next, Thompson gives us A Slight Jar, named for the understated, even dismissive, way one Olympic passenger described the feeling of the collision. This 11-foot-tall wedge of black-painted drywall projecting from the gallery’s east wall conjures a glimpse of the Olympic’s prow as it came through the fog and struck the Nantucket. We can imagine the terror the lightship crew must have endured as that dark steel specter approached. With the prow stilled in Thompson’s portrayal, their moment of anguish gets drawn out, memorialized. That stillness actually reflects the most horrifying aspect of the incident. By the time the two ships collided, the Olympic had been forced by thick fog to slow from a cruising 20 knots to a crawling 3 knots—about 3.5 miles per hour. Even so, there was not enough time for the Olympic, at over 46,000 tons, to divert course once the Nantucket was sighted off its bow. The crews of each ship could only prepare for impact and hope for the best. The wait must have been unbearable.
That the Nantucket could be hit and sunk by the very type of ocean liner it served to safeguard remains tragic and frustrating eight decades later. However, such collisions happened often enough. Just months before going down, the Nantucket was sideswiped by another ocean liner, the SS Washington, suffering minor, but repairable, damages. Were the lightship a character in a myth or novel, this brush with fate would have foreshadowed to readers that things would only get worse. Through this perspective of destiny, Thompson’s minimalist black wedge, A Slight Jar, can be viewed as something less explicit but much more ominous. Cutting into our space and leaning forward as it rises, it stands for the unknown hazards we ignore, are helpless to avoid, or recognize too late. Thompson himself equates the work to random moments of fight-or-flight panic that strike him from time to time. Whether physical, psychological, or both, we all know that feeling.
Thompson, however, would not want an abstract concept like destiny to fully obscure the very real class dynamics that played out between the Nantucket and the Olympic, a point he considers in a third work, called Not Far Away. Mounted on the gallery’s west wall, opposite A Slight Jar, it appears from a distance to be a fragment of the Nantucket itself. The ship’s red-painted hull is made from a warped plywood panel 2 feet tall by 4 feet wide, which Thompson bought already warped with this work in mind. The big letters “A N T U C” spelled out across it in white are abruptly cut of at the edges and inauspiciously flipped over. It seems the ship has already gone down.
Coming closer, three illuminated portholes reveal partial views of the Olympic, captured in a photograph taken from the Nantucket during a previous passing in April 1934. As in the work’s title—a line from a song about D. B. Cooper—the ocean liner seems not far away, maybe a few hundred feet. Less literally, though, the ships are worlds apart, one a way of life for working-class sailors and the other a luxurious means of travel for the elite. The circumstances of their eventual collision would illustrate the term “socio-economic mobility” with agonizing accuracy, because while the Olympic was on the move, the Nantucket was stuck in place. Looking again through the portholes of Not Far Away, a bluish tint, like the blue-painted glass on many of Joseph Cornell’s box constructions, casts an ethereal haze over our view. Combined with the odd feeling of looking both out of and into the Nantucket, which is both righted above water and capsized beneath, we realize that this glimpse of the Olympic, of a finer life and high society, belongs only in dreams.
It is here, then, that Thompson’s examination of the past seems to most clearly and broadly reflect his 2016 perspective, because Not Far Away conjures a Depression-era class dynamic that feels acutely relevant in post-Recession America. Anyone skeptical of that reality, of the gap between the haves and the have-nots, need only consider the dominant themes of the recent presidential election and primaries. This parallel between then and now only grows stronger when considering the last names of the Nantucket’s crewmen: Braithwaite, Fortes, George, Montero, Mosher, Perry, Perry, Pinna, Richmond, Robert, and Rodriques. How many of these men were immigrants? Were the Perrys related, father and son, brothers? For the survivors, what more did their futures hold?
If catastrophe and vulnerability overwhelm us in these first three works, the fourth offers some possibility of hope, albeit momentary and fraught. Kaleidoscope, which Thompson conceived of at around the same time as Big Big Big, is a large comet consisting of a caged incandescent light bulb trailed by long, flowing tails beautifully carved from reclaimed wood. Suspended between guy-wires at the gallery’s north end, it provides the main light source in the space, unifying the other works by making them bask in its glow. Like the drywall used to represent the prow of the Olympic in A Slight Jar or the already-warped plywood that became the Nantucket’s hull for Not Far Away, Kaleidoscope fuses a certain practical use of materials with a careful craftsmanship. The result is part Dada assemblage, part folk art, with a sensibility inspired by Wharton Esherick and medieval illuminated manuscripts.
Beyond its radiating light, Kaleidoscope further unifies the installation through a number of thematic resonances. Its title comes from a Ray Bradbury short story about an exploded rocket ship. As the astronauts scatter across space, one falls back to Earth as a bright, burning meteor. The story is one of Thompson’s favorites, first read in junior high, and it forms a science fiction parallel to the strange-but-true story of the Nantucket. As a comet—different from a meteor, but Thompson’s sculpture plays many parts—Kaleidoscope reinforces the feeling of destiny that hangs over the entire installation. Comets come back into view at regular intervals and have been interpreted as omens, often bad ones, for millennia. Finally, the sculpture’s caged bulb, called a trouble light, delivered Thompson an unexpected but fitting title for the installation as a whole. After all, what was the Nantucket if not a light to keep others out of trouble, and ultimately a light in trouble itself?
But Thompson’s Kaleidoscope holds some optimism, just as Bradbury’s did, too. In the story, the crewman who bursts into flames above the Earth becomes a shooting star upon which a young boy in Illinois makes a wish. In the sculpture, Thompson returns us to the Nantucket wreck when the worst has past and, somehow, not all is lost. His other works have already put us in the shoes of the Nantucket’s crew, whether on deck or below, before the collision, during, or just after. Kaleidoscope, then, seems like the last chapter in the saga. It is Thompson imagining a survivor’s view from the ocean, as rescue boats shoot flares into the fog to aid their search, providing a beacon of hope, a light to watch and meditate on as help arrives.
About the Author:
John Vick is the Collections Project Manager at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where he has curated or contributed to over twenty special exhibitions, gallery installations, and catalogues of modern and contemporary art. He and his wife and daughter live in Fishtown and have a small collection of works by living Philadelphia artists, including H. John Thompson.