On the front end, it sounds like the stuff of a Dilbert cartoon. The boss had a big idea, nay, an epiphany to rival that of old Archimedes, the Greek inventor who discovered water displacement and simultaneously popularized the exclamation point. Excitement and top-shelf grooming products combined strengths, forcing every follicle on the boss' body to shiver and stand tall. Judging from the heavenly gleam in his glazed-over eyes, one may assume that St. Louis (Armstrong, that is) was blowing the Hallelujah Chorus in his ears while the sweet odor of success rolled like thunder in his proudly flaring nostrils. "Hear, ye. Hear, ye," the declaration began, as statements of great import so often do. "It is mandatory that every employee of this company, be ye copywriter, computer tech, or comptroller, must produce a beautiful piece of modern art to be hung in the company gallery for public consumption."
Okay, okay. Michael Thompson, founder and guiding light of Thompson & Company advertising, which celebrates its silver anniversary this week, didn't actually say those words, but the sentiment is pretty accurate. At a time when most companies would be hanging a retrospective, polishing their laurel wreaths (or in this case, Addys), and trumpeting past triumphs, Thompson has brought other, decidedly different ideas to the table.
"It was a gamble," Thompson says of his decision to break his company into teams for the express purpose of creating artwork for public exhibition. "It was a real risk. But there was some method to the madness, and the project had a positive vibe from the beginning." According to Thompson, team-building exercises are useful in his field of endeavor, and that is exactly what this project was.
"In a business such as ours, where you have all these divisions -- direct-marketing, PR, advertising, with the client somewhere up above it all -- coordination is key. A project is going to live or die, and if one person [drops the ball], things aren't going to work. It requires a tremendous amount of team spirit. Everybody has to be up."
But was everybody up for this exercise? Not at first. According to Thompson, there was plenty of trepidation, especially on the part of employees who weren't employed in the company's creative divisions.
"A lot of people said, 'I'm not an artist, I can't draw,'" Thompson says. "Well, we fixed that."
In an attempt to squelch fears and imbue his project with certain unifiers, Thompson brought in Jackson, Mississippi, native Anne Enochs, an artist and educator who currently teaches art classes at various venues in Memphis. Enochs attempted to level the playing field between creative and administrative types by banning brushes and exploring Pollock-style splatter techniques. This is the point in the story where those with more discerning tastes will probably want to groan with disgust, Pollock being an artist who is all too easy to imitate but extremely difficult to rival. Surprisingly enough, given the number of complete novices (an estimated 90 percent), the bulk of the material stands up fairly well next to the average art-school exhibition. In some cases, only the paint itself, which Thompson purchased from client Seabrook, gives the lie. Though the colors are rich and silky, there is a reason most fine artists prefer artists' oils and acrylics to even the best house paint.
The quality of work in Thompson's 25th anniversary show, as one might expect, runs the gamut from outright awful to utterly amazing (well, given the circumstances). Some pieces will remind the viewer of such hippie staples as spin art and tie dye, while others on the less accomplished end of the spectrum summon up images from that most hated '80s fashion trend, pre-splattered painters' clothes. Some of the more surprising work calls to mind the work of 20th-century masters, especially de Kooning. In short, props must be given to lingering abstract detractors still uttering the refrain "My kid coulda done that." Well, if not your kid, at least your secretary.
The most remarkable aspect of this show, considering that each painting was a group project and the emphasis was on splatter, is the amazing amount of restraint shown by the newly christened artists. One piece, titled Out Of the Blue, which incorporates certain figurative elements -- a dragon, demonic space monkeys, and a scary blue beetle -- fits right into the pop movement of the '80s and '90s that saw all manner of cartoon and fantasy images creeping into the halls of fine art. Because Out Of the Blue only suggests the presence of these fantastical creatures and calls on the imagination to complete the picture, it succeeds on its own terms, while the more celebrated works it references rely on kitsch. Jill Foutch and Julian Smith's The Hole In My Head, a drippy but vibrant yellow circle on a dark background of blue and green, may not set the art world on fire, but it's a decorator's dream. The same might be said of Brook Duncan, Ellen Ginsberg, and Susan Myer's Tranquil Chaos, where negative space is interrupted by controlled explosions of red, blue, and yellow. The most surprising, and ultimately satisfying, work may be The Cell by Lisa Minor, Melony Bradly, and Mary Glen. It is exactly what the title says: the image of a cell painted against a red backdrop. The graphic image and color choices will remind local art hounds of primo painter Colin McClain, whose heavy black outlines and tendency to render complex images as simple cartoons make his work instantly recognizable.
"Everybody was afraid [of the project] at first," Enochs says, clearly thrilled with her students' progress. "But they really developed a can-do attitude."
"Everyone has talent," Thompson adds. "This proves it. Now, everyone running around saying 'I can't draw' really has something to be proud of."
Opening June 13th at Thompson & Company, 50 Peabody Place.