Where the Wild Things Are: An Elizabeth Thompson Retrospective

Monet was not the only painter entranced by water lilies. In 1998, Elizabeth Thompson found herself in Zimbabwe, painting her own landscape, to be titled “Water Lilies.” Thompson’s hews closer to realism than impressionism; the lilies closest to the foreground are largest, and indeed, like her earlier “Reflection, Deauville Harbor” (1978), with its painstaking depiction of rocks on a lakefront gradually receding in size and frequency as they approach the placid water, “Water Lilies” is a marvelous exercise in perspective.

More importantly, this painting and others like it helped bring Thompson to Florida. It wasn’t until she exhibited her Africa paintings that some viewers likened them to the Everglades. One of those paintings was even called “River Grass.” Curious about this last, colossal vestige of wild Florida, she visited the region. As curator Bruce Helander writes in “Elizabeth Thompson: Forty Years of Painting,” a new retrospective at the Coral Springs Museum of Art, “after floating through a tunnel of mangroves, she was hooked.”

Thompson has become a preeminent painter of the Everglades, just as Clyde Butcher has become one of the swamp’s most iconic photographers. Looking at her beautifully de-peopled visions of this primordial Eden—every glorious tangle of shrub, mossy branch and leafy curlicue—you discover shades of green you didn’t know existed.

The same awestruck quality goes for the region’s fauna. I couldn’t pull away from Thompson’s “Peaceable Kingdom,” which pulls the eye in numerous directions at once: to the gator’s tail as it slithers off frame on the right; to the wading bird on the left, with its proud plumage, clutching a writhing snake in its beak, little fireworks of white signifying each splash of its feet in the water; to the larger serpent, strangling a branch above. Another branch dangles between the animals, its thin tendrils extended toward the marsh below like witches’ fingers.

It took decades, perhaps, for Thompson to achieve this kind of detailed maximalism in art. As the title of this Coral Springs exhibition indicates, the work on display is 40 years in the making, and her corpus is far more diverse than African and Florida landscapes. The show is organized through both chronology and theme: In Paris in 1976, where she had her first exhibition, she painted beaches, then captured views of the Parisian sky through the windows of her residences; by the late 1980s, swimming pools became an obsession, their textured blocks of swirling blue paint blurring into physical forms and vice versa, realism melting away in the chlorine.

Everywhere you look, a line from Helander’s introduction resonates. To the curator, Thompson is “a dramatic visual storyteller whose canvases are filled with plot twists.” This is evident in 1977’s “Dick Walking, Deauville,” a work shrouded in mystery and silence. In a harbor scene whose ethereal desolation gives you chills, a female walks, apparition-like, in the background, incongruently dressed in heels and a skirt. Closer to Thompson’s gaze, a rain-coated man is viewed from behind, his bluejeans ruffling in the apparent wind.

My favorite painting for sheer narrative opacity is 1989’s “Mood Congruent.” The framing of the scene is so precise, it’s like a movie still of an imagined Miami noir—a female figure in a pool, her arms outstretched; a shadowy male on the patio, lighting a cigarette; another mysterious figure breathing in the scene from a building in the background. Who are they, and why are they here? There’s a killer short story in their somewhere.

And then, after years documenting, if not heightening, the Everglades in all its vividness, Thompson’s work in the mid-2010s took a turn that was at once surreal and acerbic in its commentary. Wary, as we all are, of the Glades shrinking from overdevelopment, she began imagining industry invading this paradise, as in the pointedly titled “Bridge to Nowhere” and “All Aboard,” in a which a gleaming, modern train is planted behind a glade—overgrown, overrun, man’s achievement conquered by the natural world. In the wittily titled “No Parking,” a tree has crushed a pitiful sedan. These paintings are both post-apocalyptic and cheerful at the same time; they suggest the broken remnants of a society, but at least the plants and snakes survived, laughing at our folly.

A similar sense of magical-realist desolation colors her movie theater series, in which screens and empty chairs are placed ludicrously among natural vistas, including beaches and jungles. “Okeechobee Sugar Cane” is punnily titled, because the screen is showing “Citizen Kane,” projected from the ether, a tale of felled ambition looping for an audience of none.

Most recently, Thompson’s paintings have grown more ominous. Helander classifies her latest work as “Beautiful Disasters,” evocations of ashen skies consuming once-breathtaking landscapes. There’s no escaping the fire-and-brimstone gravitas of a work like “Beelzebub’s Breath” as it swallows a blue sky, or the billowing death churning across “Land’s End,” the latter title proof that Thompson hasn’t lost her sense of humor even amid these environmental nightmares. Climate change is, to me, the unspoken subtext here, the slow-moving apocalypse that’s creating once-in-century super-storms with casual regularity.

Thompson began by capturing the life around her, albeit with an eye toward hidden mysteries. As she evolved both technically and sociopolitically, her paintings have become cleverer, angrier, more incisive. Would that all painters have such a rich and dramatic corpus. I can’t wait to see what she does next.

“Elizabeth Thompson: Forty Years of Painting” runs through March 2 at Coral Springs Museum of Art, 2855 Coral Springs Drive, Coral Springs. For information, call 954/340-5000 or visit coralspringsmuseum.org.