Atlanta-based photographer P. Seth Thompson named his fourth solo exhibition after one of television’s most notorious letdowns. “The Last One” was the name of the final episode of the 1980s hospital drama “St. Elsewhere,” whose notorious ending was widely interpreted as a revelation that the entire series had taken place in the mind of an autistic child. But that risky association paid dividends for Thompson, whose gathering of 13 digital prints, one video and one sculpture (all 2013) examined the extent to which we can separate our reality from the images around us.
Each print takes as its starting point one or more readily available movie stills or images from the Internet. Thompson then processes, combines and reprocesses these images, using basic Photoshop filters and Final Cut effects. The results are eerie, lo-fi compositions that—like vague memories—seem both familiar and hard to make out.
He’s Still There is, according to Thompson, based on the closing scene of Friday the 13th, in which the sole surviving girl reveals, in extreme close-up, that the killer is still on the loose. The composited faces of three other “final girl” characters, from the Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street franchises, lend the picture a riot of rainbow colors. The resulting portrait, a pixelated grid, is both a monument to terror and a hazy abstraction of a horror-movie trope. The Last One features a screenshot of the famous closing scene from “St. Elsewhere.” Its resolution intentionally degraded, the image of a boy and an older man both holding a snow globe is combined with NASA photos of outer space. The print brings to mind the tiny bubbles and otherworldly cast of Andres Serrano’s Immersion (Piss Christ).
Among the artist’s touchstones are references to mountaineering, The Terminator, Blade Runner and equations describing the uncertainty principle. For Thompson, the edges between science and science fiction are blurred, creating situations in which the fictional and the real can each be glimpsed only through the filter of the other.
The exhibition’s sculpture and video drove home this equivalence. A monolithic, 8-foot-high black memorial of wood, I Knew You, I Know You, and I Will Know You Again is covered with white vinyl letters spelling out the names of dozens of characters who died in popular films. The video, An Event Cannot Have An End Time in the Past, layers 20 minutes of Thompson’s home-movie footage with scenes from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Family members often dissolve into vague shapes of dappled color, their abstract movements eventually fading to the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion in a startling gut punch of an ending.
Thompson’s focus on digitally manipulating found imagery is shared by many artists today. And no wonder. In a world awash in images, pictures have become an integral part of the fabric of everyday life. In “The Last One,” Thompson revealed what it means to create a world by stitching together the images we’ve been handed.