New York

Cheyney Thompson

Cheyney Thompson’s recent exhibition looked, and was, quite simple—the way an algorithm used to generate a complex system can be simple. Here, the system was “art” or “representation,” and Thompson managed, via slyly restricted means, to involve not only painting, sculpture, printing, photography, and installation, but also a comment on the layout of galleries as showrooms flanked by storage closets. The point of the project was (a) a double entendre on “representation” as both the function of images in relation to the world and the function of galleries in relation to the artist. Or (b) a send-up of/homage to strategies of haut Conceptualism and institutional critique. Or (c) a sensitive essay in traditional art problems like the relation between hue and value, variations on the grayscale, and the flat grid compared to the perspectival orthogonal. Or (d) all of the above.

The show worked like an exercise in set theory, in which one of these things is not like the other. It had three basic parts, but the trip- tych format was split into subsets, and the items in these subsets jumped divisions to reconnect things postulated as distinct. What might be called Set One was a series of twenty-five offset lithographs, arranged in five gridded quintets. Each group of framed prints pictured serially a single multicubbied art-storage bay. The same vent-fan was visible in each image, but the source-photographs for the prints had been shot at different moments, with varying configurations of rolled and stretched canvases stashed on the shelves. Shifting in subtle monochrome from red to purple to blue to green to black while their tonal values stayed consistent, each cluster marked a dark spot of color in the white main gallery—an effect enhanced by the militant colorlessness of the other works. A second suite of four large oil paintings established Set Two in Thompson’s Venn diagram. These gray-on-gray abstractions seemed to portray rumpled fabric or shirred cellophane. In fact, Thompson had painstakingly enlarged and copied bits of four blurred photocopies. These works read as a self-reflexive literalization of the notion of the copy. Set Three was also concerned with the representation of abstract ordering principles—in this case not the copy but the archive or array. A row of eight folding tables, of the sort street-vendors use, led diagonally from the front of the gallery through a doorway into the (usually off-limits) office. Each diptychlike table was surfaced with a pair of photographs, the photos all uninflected sheets whose tonal values progressed from pure white in the first panel on the front table to full black in the last panel on the back table. Having followed this cool trail of theoretical bread crumbs, the viewer found herself standing beside—what else?—the storage bay pictured in the colored prints, stacked with bubble-wrapped art.

A parallel version of this review might be organized around a consideration of Thompson’s ironically erudite titles. The table installation is called Tables Displaying Properties of an Image (all works 2006). Reading furniture as tabulated chart, we deduce that an image is characterized by properties of display, regardless of whether it—the image-thing—is functional or decorative, two- or three-dimensional, handmade or mass-produced, light or dark, depictive of something or nothing. The exhibition was called “Quelques Aspects de l’Art Bourgeois: La Non-Intervention”—a phrase borrowed from an essay by the critic Jean Clay, editor of the French art journal Robho, published in the late ’60s and early ’70s. The prints are titled Sets of Color from Robho to Storage. Exactly what Clay argues, or how Robho deployed color, remains obscure. Thompson has intervened, however, playing along the spectrum of representational activities, taking the exhibition as a walk-in thought-experiment in which wherever you go, there you are.

Frances Richard