When the artist Conor Thompson told gallerist Anthony Atlas about the titular work for his current exhibition “The Mouse,” a selection of paintings and drawings on view through March 26 at Atlas’s apartment gallery, The Middler in Bushwick, Atlas had a visceral reaction. “I had such a bad mice infestation in the apartment that I didn’t think of the work in any kind of sophisticated way,” Atlas told me last week. “I was like, Oh yeah we have to kill mice.” In truth, the show is about much more than rodents, and the murder of them, though one painting does feature both a mouse and multiple knives.
“There’s some suggested violence there or something, for sure,” Thompson told me over the phone from Los Angeles. We were speaking about the painting, a sort of abstracted art studio environment that is packed with visual information. It includes multiple human forms that perhaps suggest the roles of artist and art handler and also a rodent whose tail is looped perilously through a mouse hole, in close proximity to a knife. “Something about a mouse’s tail—it’s always really threatened to be chopped off,” Thompson said.
The show is spread out casually between two rooms in the apartment, with the mouse painting and one other one as the center of attention. There is also a portfolio containing a suite of drawings on charcoal that rests on a living room table, open for visitors to peruse. According to Thompson, the show’s paintings stem from these studies, some of which are included in an accompanying zine published by the Swiss imprint Nieves. (Beyond the current exhibition, apartments factor into Atlas and Thompson’s history in other ways. Thompson used to draw flyers for Atlas’s old band Nodzzz, who once played at his home. “One of the first shows Anthony and I ever did together was an apartment show, on the roof of my apartment in Hollywood,” Thompson noted.)
The pleasantly low-key show is a return to figuration for Thompson, who told me that until recently he had been working on paintings that were getting “progressively more and more layered and painted over,” the net result being that he was “almost [making] these color field paintings.” Drawing was a way back into the figurative state of mind, which led to work incorporating an “arch motif” that eventually resulted in something that scanned to Thompson as a mouse hole. The only thing missing was the mouse. “It felt more urgent, to actually make the figure a presence—make the figure appear,” said Thompson. He confided that he was running a heavy fever when working on these drawings, which led him to a state where he was “feeling sort of visionary.”
Although there are many examples of rodents within art and pop culture, Thompson said that he “wasn’t really thinking about any of that stuff, or sort of the idea that it honestly clearly relates to an apartment show” when making the work. Even so, the exhibition is a good match for a gallery that was created by Atlas when the middle room of his apartment opened up. “The project was a temporary idea, just to kind of reset the apartment, basically cleanse it of the vacancy left by my ex-girlfriend moving out,” Atlas explained. It was originally intended to be a temporary pop-up-style gallery in the unused room of his apartment, but a positive response has spurred the continuation of what was initially intended as a three-show run.
Although that middle space is now occupied, the gallery persists in a manner that is at once more casual and more formal than originally intended—there is no longer a dedicated room for showing work, but The Middler will now solider on and run a program more in line with more conventional entities. “It became less about this temporary apartment reinvention, and more about, What is the extension of my own interest in artists right now, what does that sensibility look like with an art program?”
So far, that program has included a number of artists—Thompson, Rafael Delacruz, and Zane Reynolds—who work with drawing in one way or another. For Thompson, drawing is used “as the point of departure” in an attempt to negotiate “this balance of abstraction and figuration.” Such delicate negation wasn’t on Atlas’s mind, however, when he was trying to kill those pesky rodents. “I would come home and sometimes there would be like three mice behind this record shelf, and I would chase them around the apartment with a knife,” Atlas said, with a laugh. “I thought of this show as a kind of accidental commemoration of this horrible infestation, but it’s actually a pretty interesting painting.”