Slender Tenderness: Luther Hampton at Tops Gallery, Memphis

Installation view of works by Luther Hampton at Tops Gallery.
All images courtesy of Tops Gallery, Memphis.

A friend once wrote me a letter about a very Hemingway-esque trip he had recently taken to Greece. Between driving around an island in a little Skoda, drinking Aperol spritzes, having his first beefsteak tomato, and getting a mega tan, he said that he had impulsively purchased a cast plaster replica of a statue of Venus, her arms wrapped tightly around her body. “Perhaps they represent a struggle to come to terms with consciousness,” he mused.

Luther Hampton’s figures do not struggle to come to terms with their consciousness. An exhibition of his figurative sculptures on view at Tops Gallery in Memphis covers a vast swath of Hampton’s career from 1968 to 2002. The early sculptures are startling in their cohesiveness, showing a young artist with a clear and singular vision. Many of his figures are obviously stylized to resemble women of the Black diaspora, but they resist the casual violence of the archetypes easily assigned to such representations. There is a sense of power, yes—what is usually described as strong, a horribly loaded descriptor—but there is also a slender tenderness, a sly sensuality, and even humor.

Luther Hampton, Untitled, 1998.
Installation view of works by Luther Hampton at Tops Gallery.

Hampton works with wood, granite, sandstone, and marble, moving dexterously between the mediums. The figures in marble and granite bare the most traditional of the forms, the ones we could view as portrayals of Venus. But—as in works by sculptors such as Elizabeth Catlett and Hampton’s fellow Tennessean William Edmundson—there is also incredible movement and depth of emotion, even in these resolutely solid representations. Agony, pleasure, frustration, despair: Hampton’s figures glide sensually into each feeling and back out again, waiting for you to decide how you would like to watch the emotional weather subtly shift.

Luther Hampton, Untitled, 1973.
Installation view of works by Luther Hampton at Tops Gallery.
Installation view of works by Luther Hampton at Tops Gallery at Madison Ave. Park in Memphis.

Luther Hampton is on view through December 31, 2020, at Tops Gallery in Memphis.