Richmond's art community unites to honor the late Davi Det Hompson with "Just Out of Reach." 

More Than Words

While jogging in December 1996, Davi Det Hompson inexplicably suffered a fatal heart attack.

But just eight weeks before, the prolific, nationally known, Richmond artist had been in peak form. At the October opening of his final collaborative effort, he welcomed first-nighters to the third floor of Virginia Commonwealth University's labyrinthine Anderson Gallery. Here, he and Brooklyn artist Cliff Baldwin had installed a conceptual piece entitled "WRDZ." Six sets of Venetian blinds hung from the rafters at a raked angle. Metal office furniture, scraps of signage and stacked pizza boxes were also carefully arranged. A TV monitor glowed with a repeating video of a Barbie-type doll. The figure wailed a maddening and repetitive cry.

As the opening wore on, Hompson welcomed a modest trickle of gallery-goers. He discussed with them certain aspects of assembling the piece or chance discoveries he'd made while hanging the blinds at skewed angles.

In contrast, the gallery's lower floors were atwitter: On this rainy night, a black limousine had delivered Yoko Ono for the opening of her one-woman show, "Fly." Admirers and the celebrity-starved alike crowded around as she glided from space to sardine-packed space.

A few weeks later, a friend asked Hompson if many folks had made it back to the Anderson to give his show another look. "No," he answered bluntly.

"He was a real character. Very much a gentleman, but very serious — he took art very seriously," recalls Howard Risatti, a critic and VCU art history professor, who has been a prime mover in the current, five-venue retrospective of Hompson's work, "Davi Det Hompson: Just Out of Reach."

"He thought that what he did was important," Risatti says. "I was always impressed at how much he knew. He believed that visual artists should not just be able to do one thing: He knew how to handle many things visually. He was in some ways a model."

Hompson was born David E. Thompson in 1939 in Sharon, Pa., and received fine arts degrees from Indiana's Anderson College and Indiana University. In the mid-1960s he reconfigured the letters of his name in a grand nod to the Fluxus movement of which he was a leader. Fluxus, a playfully irreverent art movement that Hompson had helped establish in the '60s, might best be described as a reflection of perpetual change — or state of flux. Critics consider Fluxus to have paved the way for performance and conceptual art.

During Hompson's lifetime his works were acquired by New York's The Museum of Modern Art, the Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Both the diversity of Hompson's work and his high personal and aesthetic standards are being celebrated this fall in an unusual collaborative retrospective. With an outburst of institutional camaraderie, five of Richmond's leading cultural institutions are saluting the late artist with a multifaceted program of exhibitions and lectures.

"It certainly says a lot about the esteem in which he was held by so many leading artists that so many people are coming together for this retrospective," says Beverly Reynolds, director of the Reynolds Gallery.

And, apparently, it took at least five venues to even begin to grasp the scope of his art and interests. "He left a huge body of work," Risatti says. "We wanted to make sure a lot of it was shown, with no overlap."

The Hand Workshop Art Center is showing encaustic (or, wax) paintings and related drawings that were executed in the 1980s and early '90s entitled "Skin." This exhibition includes works on paper that have not been shown. Hompson called some of these either "clean" or "medallion" paintings. Dinah Ryan, a Virginia-based arts writer and professor is the curator.

"Got," on view at VCU's James Branch Cabell Library, is a selection of artist-made books that Hompson collected and placed in the library's special-collections department. These include examples of "mail art" and works by such prominent contemporary artists as Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, Sol Lewitt and John Baldessari. Nicole DeArmendi and Rebecca Dobyns are co-curators of the VCU exhibition.

Hompson's concrete paintings and related drawings, executed in the mid-'90s, make up "Mud" at 1708 Gallery, the downtown artist-organized gallery he helped establish. Here, Hompson's medium is quick-mix concrete. Some paintings are monochromatic while others are colorful. Risatti and Kerry Mills are curators.

VCU's Anderson Gallery is presenting "Thunk" which includes both book projects and reconstructions of parts of Hompson's larger installation pieces — including collaborative works with Cliff Baldwin. John Caperton, the gallery's special projects coordinator, is curator.

Finally, "Did" a series of some 30, square-format drawings and prints produced by Hompson in the '70s are being shown at The Reynolds Gallery in a presentation curated by Reynolds. These are minimalist explorations of X and O shapes.

For Reynolds, like many of the tribute's other organizers, the project stirs vivid memories. "Davi supported artists whether he liked their work or not," she says, while sitting in her white-walled gallery where she and Hompson frequently discussed this or that aspect of artmaking, while Hompson's son, Nate, occupied himself contentedly by drawing.

"Davi always made an effort — he went to openings. It speaks a lot to his commitment," she recalls. "He had respect for artists. He pushed people and he pushed himself."

Risatti, who has served as coordinator of "Just Out of Reach," agrees. "He liked tough art. Sometimes when he'd visit an exhibition, he'd buy the toughest piece in the show."

For Richmonders, "Just Out of Reach" should provide a visually challenging experience by an artist who could be challenging himself.

Davi Det Hompson: Just Out of Reach venues:

"Davi Det Hompson: Did"
Reynolds Gallery
1514 W. Main St.
Through Oct. 2
Square format drawings exploring X and O shapes

"Davi Det Hompson: Got"
Special Collections and Archives at VCU's James Branch Cabell Library
901 Park Ave.
Through Oct. 17
A selection of numerous artists' book works collected by Hompson

"Davi Det Hompson: Thunk"
VCU's Anderson Gallery
907ø W. Franklin St.
Through Oct. 24
Examples of Hompson's book works and other objects involving text

"Devi Det Hompson: Skin"
Hand Workshop Art Center
1812 W. Main St,
Through Oct. 17
Encaustic paintings

"Davi Det Hompson: Mud"
1708 Gallery
103 E. Broad St.
Through Sept. 25
Concrete paintings and related drawings

Related events:Howard Risatti discusses the work of Davi Det Hompson at Reynolds Gallery Sept. 12 at 3 p.m. Program continues at 4 p.m. with Richard Carlyon at Hand Workshop Art Center.Cliff Baldwin of Baldwin + Hompson presents a lecture at 1708 Gallery Sept. 18 at 1 p.m.Linda Johnson presents "Women and Book Art Today," a public lecture by celebrating the 20th anniversary of the book art collection at VCU. Oct. 14, 7 p.m. at Grace Street Theater.

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