THE DOUGLAS THOMPSON INTERVIEW
By Mike Coppolino

April
2000

 

 

Discovering the secret of a good interview is an odd experience. It can be intimidating at times, disturbing at others, especially when you go in figuring you have to steer the artist into set-up questions, whereas you find two outcomes: one is you get a standard pre-ordained answer; the other is having your subject resent being penned into this line of questioning, and resenting these answers they're being forced to give, making interviews something to dread. In interviewing Doug Thompson, I figured that I ought to take more of an experimental route; a three-point plan where I went in with no set questions, plenty of alcohol, and burnt out from a hard day of work. As it turned out, planning for an absence of plans seemed to work best. It's an easy strategy, especially when you live above the bar you work in; something that I found was a calculated part of a life by design; something as calculated as the seemingly random décor of Doug's apartment. Walking in, one is overcome by a strong sense of a person who is as much a fan of other people's work as he is confident of his own abilities as an artist. The evidence of both these aspects was evident at every glance, with every corner revealing more evidence of this strange and bizarre sense of humor, and the appreciation of humor where it's found. As we chugged beer and whisky, with the Residents playing in the background, I switched on the tape and let the interview start.

 
  What motivates you as an artist?

As both an artist and otherwise, I feel my motivations are centered around being able to sleep in every day. I want to be able to stay out as late as I want to and if the inspiration is there, I want to have the ability to stay up all night working on something, be it art or anything else that has my attention. Having a morning schedule destroys my ability to think. It's a mindset I've learned to avoid after attending five and a half years of college. I already know what a dollar's worth. I have a good sense of what you can do with it and what you can't. Right now, I doubt a dollar will ever be worth the ruin of my mornings. If I need to work for something, I'm going to make sure it's during my hours.

Did you always work at jobs around bars?

I had a slew of jobs before I got to bartending. My first job was working as a Bob's Big Boy, dressing up and waving at people on the highway . . . but I got fired from that job pretty quickly when they found out I was pissing on the side of the road while in the costume and giving random people the finger. I guess you can say I didn't realize what a job was about when I was young, that whole list of do's and don'ts . . . but I knew I needed to do something that was suited for me. Being Bob's Big Boy was fine so long as I could be what I considered the ideal Bob's Big Boy.

I'm finding it awfully hard to picture Bob's Big Boy pissing on the roadside. Were you in one of those big plastic outfits? Because honestly I didn't figure those had an easy way you could pee out of them.

It was one of those checkered overalls-type jumpsuits with a big paper mache' head attached to the top of it. I would spend most of my time out there, chain-smoking cigarettes, and the only way I could do that was by constantly sticking my arm through Bob's eyehole to get to them. I imagine it looked pretty weird and it eventually got me fired; not that I cared all that much. I knew I wanted to work at a bar even then because I was already spending my time getting in under age. I already knew how to make the drinks, so when I turned twenty one, I jumped on the opportunity while that style appealed to me. Right now, there's nothing I'd rather like more than to get out of it . . . but only if I could find a way to survive on my other abilities, not necessarily commercial work but . . . there would need to be more of an appreciation for fine art to make that happen.

It seems like commercial art is where everybody has to hang for a while.

The only commercial jobs I do are jobs I believe in, like doing record covers for bands I want to hear more of. Right now, one of my projects is working on a movie poster for Dave Sheridan, a friend I grew up with back in Delaware. He's just finished writing a movie about where we grew up and he's lined up with Mike Judge to co-produce the film. Thinking about all the stories this movie is about, and the idea that I was part of making it while we were growing up, makes it real easy to think up ideas on how the poster should look. I feel there should be something that tells what it was like to live during those years.

Are they giving you complete artistic license?

We're in the middle right now where I'm giving them my version, and hopefully they won't revise it. You know when you're going into a project like this that they're going to pull things out or not want certain elements in? I'm getting used to that now. That's why I'm working more and more on only things that I want to do because I'm getting tired of being edited out of my paintings. It seems to be too common an experience when working on commercial projects, even when I'm working with people I want to work with; the whole idea of creating mass appeal usually turns my work into something that's not going to be the way I want it to be.
 

Getting used to it seems like a harsh thing . . . and it seems like an easy thing to if the money's there.

Well . . . I'm getting used to not being appreciated . . . which is fine because it makes me do what I want to do on my own terms. If people don't like my art, they don't like it. I'm not going to change my ideas to someone else's standard of what's acceptable. I'd rather wait to see what I'm doing now turn into something acceptable, something that might be considered recognizable in another five years.

Recognizable as a life time?

Just as long as I get rich before I die. (laughs)

Money's seems so hard to come by these days. A lot of times I've found that people just give you stuff for doing what you're doing, trading one art for another.

As long as rent's part of it. Right now there's nothing more I'd like than to live in a house that I own so I can work out of it doing more of what I want to do. I think that freedom would allow me to make a living out of doing art.

I thought about doing that for a while to a point where I'd saved more than enough for a down payment . . . but just when I was going to put it down I realized how much that mortgage payment was going to control me.

Nothing any different from rent . . . except maybe that you can move . . . but there's always going to be rent anywhere you go.

When did you move to Chicago?

I actually moved to Philadelphia when I was seventeen to enroll at the Philadelphia College of the Arts. I stayed there until I was twenty one, and then my dad died. I moved to Chicago soon after just to try and get away. I was a little bent in with what I knew, and all that was happening following his death made me want to go somewhere I hadn't been and start over. You don't expect your parents to die when you're that young, and I guess you can say I was shocked most of that year. Chicago did what it was supposed to do. I got my head back together and got my teaching degree and my bachelor in fine arts at the Chicago Arts institute. Right after that, I moved here and I've been here now for a little over three years.

What made you move out here?

I just needed a change. Honestly, living in Chicago for five years, the weather takes a toll on you. You don't even realize it, especially when you're working nights. I'd work from eight to two in the morning, and then run around in after hours bars until five AM. My tendency was to live a nightlife, and not see the sun at all; and that, coupled with the fact that it's always gray in Chicago anyway. I didn't realize how depressed I was until I moved out here and woke up without an alarm at six thirty in the morning. I'd be amazed most times, to a point where I'd have to go to the window and think "holy shit, it's sunny again." I used to get so excited about nice weather. But what got me to move out here was an art show I'd been invited to in LA. Before that, I'd had my share of art shows in Chicago where only six people would show up and four of them were my friends and two were the gallery owners. It wasn't a high turnout and it wasn't because the work was bad . . . well, I'd like to think that and pat myself on the back, but it wasn't enough of a kickback for me. When I'd gotten accepted into a show at La Luz de Jesus gallery in Los Angeles, I felt it was time to make the move out here. I drove cross-country and moved into San Diego on the day of the show. Actually, I wouldn't call it moving in, it was more like jumping out of the moving truck after thirty hours of driving and hopping in my girlfriend's truck to make it out to LA. I got there at 11:30, just time enough to catch the tail end of the reception. And when I got there I was blown away because there were 200 people on the sidewalk, and they were just the overflow of what was going on inside. I knew then that this was the kind of thing I wanted to do all the time. Not so much the art, but getting to the event in general; getting to where this stuff is happening, that's where my focus is. The size of the event really blew me away; how people appreciate art here so much differently then what I'd experienced in Chicago. I'm not saying people don't appreciate art in Chicago, it's just they don't treat it as I'd like to think . . . they go with the understanding that it's much more highbrow, where as here it's treated more as entertainment. But it was in Chicago that paintings were getting sold . . . even with low turnout at shows.

Around here is it more like an attraction or do people actually buy?


There are people that want your art but don't really have any money, people who are keyed in to seeing new art and know you're shit's good, but don't have the money to kick down for it. They're working low pay jobs themselves, and they're into the counterculture or whatever, and counterculture usually means being somewhat isolated . . . and most often this means being broke. As for mainstream, high-digit galleries, I don't think San Diego has anywhere that really shows the art going on beneath the accepted scheme. There was the IP gallery for a while, and the Museum of Death did a lot of well-conceived erotic shows, but they got booted out of their space and clued themselves into what was going on in LA. After those galleries disappeared, nothing moved in to take their place.

I haven't seen anything new Downtown for a long time in San Diego. Even at Seventh and B they've had the same art up for at least three months.

They're really nothing new going on in San Diego now. The Reincarnation Project as a thought was a good idea, and then it became a gentrification- in-action that said "oh we got a great big building; let's knock it down-- no, let's not knock it down, and just add a couple walls and take advantage of these high ceilings." Money moved in, and money pretty much took over. They show art; they use the space for the purpose of art and they've had a couple of good shows, but for the most part, I've seen it decline rapidly in the last year. It's at a point now where I could see that place out of existence in the next five years. If it survives, it's going to continue making it with safe shows like the ones they have now; with all pastels and landscapes and landscape pastels . . . you'll have to excuse me, I'm getting a little bitter.

Have you tried showing there before?

The only places I show now are where people ask me specifically because they want me and I rarely go out of my way to try and find a show unless it's something that I believe in. I did that in the past. I'd bust my nuts showing slides to every gallery, and nothing really came out of it. All the running around took me away from my time, and it took away from the cost of materials needed to keep making art. It worked in a way and it didn't. Gallery owners would say "yeah, yeah-- we love your stuff", but when it came down to it, they'd start hemming around trying to figure out what they did or didn't understand. The jokes are right in front of you. I mean there's nothing to get . . . you don't have to look deep and find some hidden meanings. Most of my work is just in your face; it's pretty obvious, so I'd rather have the same people who say 'bring slides we love your work" end up saying "this is too out there." I just don't want to touch that sort of hypocrisy because I don't want to endure that sort of backlash from anyone . . . I'm just kind of venting now, sorry. It's funny, because I've met so many artists out there that are so much more cunningly deviant that it makes my work look like candy.

Is it sometimes by being plain that you make yourself more subversive? By saying here it is and not hiding anything?

I'm kind of against being subversive, hiding things in there just for the sake of being subversive. I don't want to manipulate the viewer; I'd more prefer it to be obvious. Either you like it, or you don't. I think most people, when they see some of my work, they enjoy it but they think at the same time "I can't put that over my couch. I get the joke but it doesn't match my couch." My response to that is reupholster the couch, there's fabric that can be made to match. Art can't be changed or molded; furniture is pretty much disposable. I mean, don't get me wrong, I love my furniture, all the wacky sort of stuff I've collected, but I don't think anything matches anything in here and that's why it works so well. . . at least in my view.

Speaking of matching furniture, how exactly do you come up with matching a corpse to your living room décor?

That's not a corpse. That's a skeleton.

It's something you don't normally see in homes.

I think I've been pretty lucky to get that one actually. I went by an antique store that I used to work at, and I saw it. and I thought it was a fake one just because they had it hanging up. Then, as I was walking by looking for cocktail shakers and things like that, I kept having to look at it and damn, it sure as hell looked real. So I bought it for a very good price from Joan over at Retreads. As for it being in my home . . . I tell everyone who feels horrified by the fate of this person hanging in my living room that when I die, I want to be turned into a skeleton and be presented as well, be it for scientific reasons, a classroom or whatever. When I die, this is what I want to be.

You'd probably have to endure a few years of being a cadaver.

I don't know. I suppose I could get some more whisky tonight, and be hit by a car crossing the street. I doubt you have to endure very much after that.

Do you have to sign paperwork to become a skeleton, some skeleton type application form?

I think it's probably pretty easy . . . well, I'm probably assuming it's a little different being a human than a dog. I had my dog cremated and they just . . . you know say two hundred bucks and here you go, you get your ashes in four days. I think with a living will you can do whatever you want to do, and the corpse is pretty much considered free game, assuming they treat it the same as being an organ donor. You can give your eyes to someone who's blind. You can put a sticker on your license.

It might not be a nice thing to be stuck in a thrift store at reduced cost with a red tag that says "Half off on Thursdays".

I'll keep it open you know. I want to be a skeleton, I think it would be great, and if one of my friends wants me then that's fine . . . but c'mon, tell me that that thing wouldn't be bought just for the sight of a skeleton with a red tag special stuck to the skull.

Would you want to have a name attached to the skeleton?

I don't know. I guess I'd get sold either way. I wouldn't mind being anonymous, considering that I would already be a skeleton, and wouldn't be considering much anyway. I don't know this skeleton's name-- the only thing I know is that he died in his early thirties, and that he's Middle Eastern.

His teeth are crazy . . . that one tooth is getting out of hand right up front.

The jaw moves and everything. (moves the jaw) It's for presentation . . . it's not for . . . you know I'd love to dress him up as a cowboy, and get him a six shooter on his side, or make him into some sort of pirate or something . . . but at the same time, I don't want to disrespect it. I have no idea what he went through, and maybe that's humiliating, so I won't take it that far.

Did you ever check to see if he had some breaks that healed in the skeleton?

You know, he's got some broken ribs, and I don't know if that was his cause of death. He might've died horribly, but that might have also happened after he was a skeleton. I tell you, what gets spooky is if you dim the track lighting, then it takes on a whole other realm there. Anytime my girlfriend comes by, and spends the night, she can't walk past it to get a cup of water because it's too creepy just sitting there in the corner. Someone was telling me that they saw this girl bowling at Aztec bowl and she had a bowling ball made out of acrylic that had a human skull inside. That seems so cool to me. I already have a bowling ball coffee table and a skeleton, now I just need to find some way to bridge that gap.

 
 

These little figurines you have on the wall are pretty strange. I've been meaning to ask you about them ever since we started this interview.

They used to be given out like greeting cards in the late sixties and early seventies. Instead of getting a greeting card, you'd get one of these little googly eyed statues saying "I love you this much" or "world's greatest grandma", and things like that. People used to get them in Hallmark stores and for a while they were really really popular. The earliest one I got is from 1967; and in this style, they go all the way to maybe 74, something like that.

Are these plastic?

They're like hard resin plastic. The company that made these still exists, but now they make different things. I just pick these up at thrift stores. I used to also collect those big-eyed puppies, paintings of big-eyed kittens and kids; those Margaret Keene type paintings. I used to get into those paintings of big-eyed dogs and cats because they looked so pathetic, but then, after collecting enough of them, they grew on me to a point where I ended up actually liking them. After that, I figured the next step would be collecting something that was even more pathetic, something I didn't even know whether I'd be able to stand it or not, and these statues that I found at thrift stores kind of filled that ticket. I had no idea it would turn into a collection like this. I now have over two hundred, and they're all different, different colors and different sizes. These ones on the top shelf are fifteen inches tall. I'd never seen anything like these when I was a kid. I like these a lot because no one actually wants them. They're things that everyone else kind of wants to give away.

The thing is, they weren't obscure. They were so popular--that's the amazing thing about it.

It's kitsch. It's kitsch to a "T"--that describes it more than anything. I don't know what's going on with these now, They aren't on
Ebay, or anything yet, but give it another year, and I'll be making a fortune out of collecting crap.

How long do you believe in something? Do you ever come to a point where you believe that the art you've been doing is not good art and decide to change something or everything?

Actually, when I went to school, I originally went for photography; half as a cop-out because it was the easiest format, the easiest way to get a degree because you could just go out, shoot a roll of film and develop it and have fifteen images inside a day. Whereas if you're painting, it takes you a month at least to do something that's worthy, and I think it shows when you put a lot of time into something. It kind of takes on a soul of its own. As far as things changing goes, I went from being a photographer in college to painting on the side until after I graduated, and I didn't have access to the facilities. Then I was doing thirty by forty inch photos and silk-screening over top of them, and all sorts of wacky stuff. Not many people have seen that era of my stuff, and not many people will since it's not something I continued doing. After I graduated, I didn't make any art for a year, and then I started freaking out. I needed to get stuff out, I needed to make things to do what comes naturally to me, so I started painting without any training. The easiest thing for me to do was hop onto the pop art style because its flat paints. There's a guy named Shane Swank in Chicago that was my biggest mentor at the time, and he got me to start making art again, and I actually bought the painting from him that made me realize that I could paint. I'm not trained as a painter, and I don't know what I'm doing as a painter., I just started, and from there it evolved from painting to constructions to found objects, and back to painting. I keep a pressure on myself in case I ever feel stagnant. If I ever feel I'm doing too much of one thing, I'll jump to something else. I'll do something totally different from what I've done before, but still try to keep that ironic humor in it. People will catch on eventually, it's something I'm not worried about. It's much better to disregard that acceptance and follow your passion. It's the only thing I've heard from anyone I admire. If you do what you believe in, then you will be successful, so I try to do that as much as I can.

Do you have many projects going on at once?

I always seem to have about ten projects going on at once but there's always one I want to finish most. Often I'm at odds with where I am and what time I have. I recently finished a mosaic of Charles Manson formed out of marijuana seeds, and that project turned into something I really had to want to finish. I thought it would be something that would just take a month to do, the actual assembling of the picture being the only thing that I was focused on. I didn't figure on how difficult it would be to get all the seeds together. Everyone kept saying "I'll get you a ton", but when it comes down to getting a few thousand seeds in the required shades it gets really difficult. The people I was looking to get seeds from were often in no condition to remember to save their seeds. They'd make excuses, saying "I only had four or five, so I threw them away", but from where I'm looking, that four or five seeds will all add up. You're always constrained by available to you . . .but at the same time I'm always at odds with what's given to me.

Is there anything that fuels your art or gives you special inspiration?

I think I'm more inspired by going to a yard sale or a thrift store than any museum or gallery. The less I'm exposed to other people's art, the better off I feel I am because I feel it comes more from inside, rather than a mimicry of what someone else is doing. If I go out and see a lot of things I'm bombarded by other people's images to the point where I feel set back. Duplicating doesn't add to anything that's already out there, and if I'm not painting or putting together art that comes from the inside, I'm not going to be very satisfied. I think the last time I went to an art museum was quite a few years ago, some exhibit by Roy Lichtenstein, and only because my mom wanted to see it. She actually wanted to see some of my stuff and I suggested the museum to change the subject. I don't want my mom to see what her son's been thinking about in the last five years. It might really weird her out to see the type of stuff I'm doing now, and I don't really think I'd want to do that to my mom. I wouldn't want to worry her more than I already have.