On ViewTops Gallery
August 28 – December 31, 2020
Luther Hampton (b. 1942) grew up in the heart of his native South Memphis, a Black neighborhood well-known for its cultural contributions to the history of the city, such as the famous soul music label, Stax Records. Since childhood, Hampton loved to shape things, and in elementary school was exposed to drawing, calligraphy, mapmaking, and pottery. After service in the military during the Korean War, Hampton spent over a decade in Illinois working at steel companies, developing skills as a welder. He was a union employee, which he describes as a “real welding situation” where work that was not up to the high standards the job demanded was thrown back into the metal bin and tossed out for scrap iron, and “you start all over again until you get it right.” He won one of his first awards at the Town and Country Arts Festival in Decatur, Illinois for a piece carved from cherry wood entitled Being Great With Child.
When Hampton returned home in 1969 and enrolled in the Memphis Academy of Art, he was already an accomplished self-taught sculptor. The training at the Academy of Art emphasized experience in all media, rejecting distinctions between the fine and applied arts, and Hampton worked with the range of professors at the school: Ted Rust, John McIntire, and Burton Callicott. It was sculptor John McIntire who encouraged Hampton to further develop his interest in the female form. Luther Hampton presents a varied and complex body of work from 1968–2020, strikingly displayed in Tops Gallery, a contemporary space in the basement of a warehouse intended to both engage the local community while creating a dialogue with higher profile art centers in New York, Los Angeles, and beyond. The rough-hewn quality of textured surfaces like concrete predominates, creating an arresting visual backdrop for Hampton’s sculpture. 14 of the 17 sculptures (all untitled) are interpretations of the female form, their visual impact intensified by the dark, cavern-like interior of the gallery. The figures range from sexually mature female forms to matriarchal tropes. One of the most commanding, dated to 2001, exhibits the raw, organic style of visionary, self-trained artists. The lower section retains the rough-hewn appearance of a dead tree-trunk, out of which Hampton carved a serpentine figure that follows the inherent movement in the wood. In contrast, a 1978 figure framed by the square wall indention behind her displays refined modernist techniques. Highly stylized and expressive, the interplay of smooth convex and concave forms and rounded volumes suggests a multitude of readings. The enclosed contours make for a compact frontal appearance, while the profile has curved, protuberant forms that heighten the sense of fertility. Upraised arms and breasts circulate around the head like a cascading bouffant hairstyle framing the face.
The full-length figure in the main gallery, carved in 1978, stands at 55.5 inches and portrays an elderly woman emerging from Hampton’s column-oriented approach to sculpture. Emotional and psychological intensity is embodied via signs of age apparent in the slightly stooped shoulders, sagging breasts and lined face. The woman’s large hands are placed flatly against the front of her skirt. At the base, the natural split in the wood is sculpted in a manner that suggests feet firmly placed on the ground. Her facial expression conveys a sense of resignation and strength of character that complements the figure’s brooding monumentality. Hampton’s response to the integrity of the medium can be likened to the approach to abstract forms observed in West and Central African aesthetic traditions, which influenced the modernist movement in Europe at the turn of the 20th century.
Likewise, the pieces showcasing Hampton’s work with stone are both powerful and elegant, drawing upon ancient Cycladic, pre-Columbian and modernist influences. The reclining figure of a woman, 1979, is squeezed into a rectangular block of granite, coiled limbs held together by her arm and hand reaching across the base of the sculpture. A stippled technique atop the head and back is distinct from the smooth, polished front of the body. Hampton’s handling of mass and pose display the impact of pre-Columbian art, as well as Mexican muralism.
Untitled (1993) depicts a woman captured within a narrow frame of marble. The compression of her limbs does not break with the formal geometry of the stone. The head is turned horizontally, the bent knees press against breasts with flat geometric circles indicating nipples, and the hands are clasped tightly around the base of the statue above the feet. Flecked areas on the knees, arms and buttocks diverge from smoother parts of the stone. The synthesis of form and compressed contours show the impact of William Zorach and José de Creeft, masters of direct carving techniques that Hampton was introduced to at the Memphis Academy of Art.
Hampton successfully bridged the divide between self-taught artists and academia. His works display a complex and nuanced approach to representation that is fundamentally vernacular in drawing upon the community and culture of his birth. They are just as compelling in the revelation of academic training and modernist stimuli. The work should be studied within the context of sculptors with similar experiences like William Edmondson (1874–1951) of Tennessee and Marion Perkins (1907–61) in Chicago. Over the past decades his work has received only sporadic exposure. However, the artist has continued to create an extensive body of work exhibiting great skill and sophistication. A reevaluation of Hampton’s place in the history of African American carving traditions is long overdue.