Hammer Projects: Mungo Thomson

Hammer Projects: Mungo Thomson

Los Angeles-based artist Mungo Thomson’s works ponder notions of mysticism and the big questions in life with an underlying deadpan wit. For the Hammer’s Lobby Wall, Thomson presents a variation of his Negative Space project, which as he puts it, “came out of reflecting on the color of nothing; in outer space the void is black, and in the art context the void—the empty gallery—is always white.” Thomson found an online image archive of starscape photos taken by the Hubble Space Telescope and he’s been downloading the copyright-free images and inverting them with a simple Photoshop tool. The result is a spectacular starburst that looks more like a close-up of minerals or marble than space debris. For the Lobby Wall, Thomson has chosen the M74 and NGC 3370 galaxies.

Organized by Hammer curator Ali Subotnick. 


Mungo Thomson was born in 1969 in Woodland, California, and lives in Los Angeles and Berlin. He attended the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program in 1994, and received an MFA from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 2000. His work has been featured in solo exhibitions at Margo Leavin Gallery, Los Angeles; John Connelly Presents, New York; the Kadist Art Foundation, Paris; GAMeC, Bergamo, Italy; and the Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia (forthcoming). Recent group exhibitions include those at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.; Vancouver Art Gallery; and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Thomson’s work has also been shown in several biennial exhibitions, including the 2008 Whitney Biennial in New York; the 2008 Le Havre Biennale in Le Havre, France; and the 2004 California Biennial at the Orange Country Museum of Art, Newport Beach. Writings on his work have appeared in publications such as Artforum, Frieze, Flash Art, and Uovo.


By Suzanne Hudson 

Writing on the work of his friend and fellow Angeleno, painter Laura Owens, Mungo Thomson identified certain traits that broadly distinguish art made in this city: “It tends to be conversational and suggestive and to wear its doubts outright. It displays a certain nihilistic utopianism and is comfortable with oxymorons. It’s not the kitsch and fiberglass of a dystopic Disneyland, but the spaced-out rigor of spending a day in the garden.”1 Reading this recently, I could not help but think that—in the great therapeutic tradition of transference—Thomson’s description serves his own wide-ranging work as much as it particularizes that made by anyone else. By turns deadpan and caustically sly, Thomson’s diligent informality gamely pop-ifies its often antiaesthetic historical precedents (more often than not, these are conceptual artists working in the 1960s and 1970s) and resituates that generation’s thought experiments in the public realm. He has manufactured self-help bumper stickers bearing Bruce Nauman’s 1967 elliptical communiqué “The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths,” Styrofoam car antenna balls emblazoned with John Baldessari’s iconic downy visage, and an inflatable bounce house modeled on the architecture of a James Turrell skyspace. 

Across the many media Thomson exploits, a common denominator remains his interest in backgrounds—whether material, institutional, or historical—and his proposition that they can be newly and differently engaged. In the DVD projection The American Desert (for Chuck Jones) (2002), for instance, Thomson compiled a chronological archive of backdrops from the Looney Tunes Road Runner cartoons that Jones animated between 1949 and 1964. Protagonists and stock narratives excised, the oddly sublime desert scenes mimic landscape painting of the bygone frontier, yet the work is doubly nostalgic in that it also became a de facto tribute to Jones, who died shortly after Thomson completed it. For The Bootleg Series (2003–04), Thomson recorded the ambient sounds of gallery exhibition openings and then installed those sound tracks in other art spaces, filling the latter with persistent, intangible chatter, dislocated in place and time.

 Silent Film of a Tree Falling in the Forest  Wind Chimes  Coat Check Chimes  

 Yoga Brick Wall  

 Negative Space  Negative Space  Negative Space (STScI-PRC2003-24)  Negative Space (STScI-PRC2007-41a)  

 Negative Space  


1. Mungo Thomson, "From My Junkyard to Yours," Parkett, no. 65 (2002): 85-86.

2. Unless otherwise noted, quotations by the artist are from recent e-mail exchanges with the author.

3. Carl Sagan, The Varieties of Scientific Experience, ed. Ann Druyan (New York: Penguin, 2006), 2.

Suzanne Hudson is a New York–based critic and an assistant professor of modern and contemporary art at the University of Illinois.


Hammer Projects is made possible with major gifts from Susan Bay-Nimoy and Leonard Nimoy and The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation.

Additional generous support is provided by the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, Good Works Foundation and Laura Donnelley, the David Teiger Curatorial Travel Fund, and Fox Entertainment Group’s Arts Development Fee. Gallery brochures are underwritten in part by the Pasadena Art Alliance.