New York

Cheyney Thompson, Biometrically Secure Punch Clock, 2017, custom electronics, ABS plastic, 6 7/8 x 10 x 3 1/4".

Cheyney Thompson, Biometrically Secure Punch Clock, 2017, custom electronics, ABS plastic, 6 7/8 x 10 x 3 1/4".

Cheyney Thompson

Andrew Kreps Gallery

Cheyney Thompson, Biometrically Secure Punch Clock, 2017, custom electronics, ABS plastic, 6 7/8 x 10 x 3 1/4".

In the unforgiving hands of Cheyney Thompson, painting is subject to a deconstruction so thoroughgoing and severe that it might better be termed a disembowelment. Having broken the medium down into its constituent parts, Thompson doesn’t so much reassemble it as transport it into other realms entirely, to fields governed by systems and routines more often associated with such divergent realms as mathematics, economics, and manual labor. “Somewhere Some Pictures Sometimes,” the deliberately nebulous title of the artist’s seventh solo exhibition at this gallery, was consistent with the teasingly evasive cast of his enterprise as a whole. There were “some pictures” (of a sort) here, but far from operating as autonomous images or objects, they made sense only as parts of a larger, tougher, and more rigorously conceptual undertaking.

Though composed almost entirely of variously sized, austere monochrome paintings, the key to the show was not a canvas at all but rather a small machine that occupied an unobtrusive spot on a narrow wall by the office door. This compact, “biometrically secure” punch clock required gallery staff to clock in each morning, and their mundane interaction determined the configuration of the show’s installation for that day. Some sixty-four paintings were held away from visitors’ prying eyes in custom-built storage racks, allowing for an unfathomable 152,587,890,625 potential combinations. Since, of course, only a tiny percentage of this vast range was ever realized, “Somewhere Some Pictures Sometimes” became more about the invisible than the visible, about function, value, repetition, and hierarchy, and the limits of meaning itself. Like On Kawara’s “Today” series, 1966–2013, it distilled some surprisingly complex ideas from quasi-mechanical patterns of making and display.

In addition to their arrangement and rearrangement having been directed by Thompson’s semiautomatic system, the paintings’ production and appearance were also the results of a predetermined logic. The continuation of a sequence of “quantity paintings,” they, too, are the fruits of a statistical process. The artist employed an algorithm (that ever less exotic tool) to arrive at the distribution of a fixed amount of pigment over the surface of each panel, also allowing that formula to determine how much is applied in each brushstroke. Additionally, the formats of the paintings followed Thompson’s exhibition at the same gallery two years earlier, reproducing its contents in five monochromatic black, white, and primary-colored variations. “Somewhere Some Pictures Sometimes” thus folded well-nigh-endless variation into absolute rigidity, finding a curious freedom in the abdication of control.

There is, then, a kind of bleak, Beckettian comedy to Thompson’s approach, an acknowledgment that even the existence of free will and endless choice allow us no escape from a gradual but inescapable strangulation by diminishing return. The exhibition should be regarded above all as a temporal work, one where the installation’s restless state became a kind of slow-burning performance, a chess game in which the pieces moved around but the stalemate remained. The show’s punch-clock anchor recalled Tehching Hsieh’s One Year Performance 1980–1981 (Time Clock Piece), during which the artist clocked in every hour on the hour for the titular duration (also taking a photo of himself each time). Thompson’s focus was more explicitly art-about-art than was the senior artist’s, but both projects intersect with a pretty fatalistic vision of labor. The essence of work, they suggest, is endless repetition. A certain kind of meaning may be attainable, but only through relentless accumulation and strict limitation.

Michael Wilson