New York

Cheyney Thompson

At first glance, the paintings in “Robert Macaire Chromachromes,” Cheyney Thompson’s fourth solo show at Andrew Kreps Gallery, seemed a stock conceptual prank: thirteen linen canvases offering the painstakingly hand-rendered image, in color, of an enlarged section of their underlying fabric. A second look, however, expanded this seemingly superficial tautology. Having divided the gallery into three rooms in a way that brought to mind the spatial logic of a museum, Thompson presented a succession of historical canvas formats, each painting or diptych taking the shape and dimensions of a different canonical size. In the first room, for example, there was a polite 173⁄4-by-141⁄2-inch portrait painting, a 20-by-111-inch classical frieze (appropriately hung on the upper reaches of the gallery wall), a 44-inch Renaissance tondo, a 24-inch Constructivist square, and a pithy 24-by-1-inch Conceptualist’s “edge.”

Thompson has often foregrounded transparency—social, fiscal, and physical—in his work. In a 2006 show at Galerie Daniel Buchholz in Cologne, for instance, he presented portraits of his landlords in thin, CMYK-separated layers of paint, taking as his nominal subject matter the shady contractual relationships and imbalanced distribution of capital exemplified by the real estate market. In the works at Kreps, Thompson’s seemingly transparent handling of content and form (in taking painting’s material support as pictorial content and contextualizing it within its underlying art-historical narrative) is likewise countered formally by the abstraction of his process. Thompson digitally scanned a section of canvas, numerically separating its tones into three categories—highlight, midtone, and shadow. Bypassing the subjectivity of human perception, he then turned to the Albert Munsell color sys- tem—a scale of hue, lightness, and chroma, officially used by the USDA to categorize soil samples (from the literal “ground”), among other scientific applications—to select pairs of complementary colors. Deploying these to represent the light and dark sections of the fabric, he painted an image of the canvas’s grain onto each primed surface. In the artist’s words, the paintings that emerge from this process are not monochromes, but chromachromes.

In the second room another painting, taking the form of a grand tableau, carried the subtitle macaire, in reference to the legendary medieval French criminal Robert Macaire, who was reincarnated in the 1830s as a financial schemer and con artist in a series of satirical engravings by Honoré Daumier. Macaire also appeared in the show’s four framed drawings, incomplete attempts to calligraphically render his name. Yet it remains uncertain who Macaire is meant to represent in Thompson’s invocations of the figure—the collector, the dealer, or even the artist himself. As with Thompson’s intensely layered meditation on painting, Macaire offers a multitude of social and conceptual gestures for consideration.

The “smart” supporting narratives of Thompson’s work and its clean integration of form and concept make his work easy to approve critically; its baroque rigor—evident not least in the intellectual tease of the artist’s borderline-impenetrable method—readily baits the viewer to do so. No matter how far one follows any of the threads he lays out, however, real value is difficult to locate. In an essay about Martin Kippenberger, critic Diedrich Diederichsen argues that already in the 1970s “critique, consciousness, perspective, and rationality had sedimented as values. . . . [C]ritical energy deteriorate[d] into a form of mere orientation that was valued for being dependable.” That is not unlike the situation mid-2009, as Thompson seemingly acknowledges. Perhaps it is only in admitting to vacuity—a kind of space Thompson gracefully inserts into every gesture—and generating one’s own meaning that value is to be found; the other option is playing Macaire.

Caroline Busta