BY Michael Wilson in Features | 07 JUN 03
Featured in
Issue 76

Periodic tables

Cheyney Thompson

BY Michael Wilson in Features | 07 JUN 03

'He says: it is not good to be living in a human body. I'd rather cower under the earth or run across the fields and eat whatever I can find, and the wind blows and rain falls and the cold days come and go, that's better than living in a human body. The mice scamper about, and now Franz Biberkopf is a field mouse, and he digs along with them.'
Alfred Döblin, Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929)

The protagonist of Alfred Döblin's famously expressionistic novel is released from prison only to face the harshness of working as a street pedlar while attempting to re-establish a 'normal' life within a disintegrating social order. His story is bound up with one of the first fully realized representations of the modern city and it retains the power to influence profoundly our reading of the metropolitan setting as a matrix of restrictions, both physical and psychological, which are continuously reinforced by the hegemony of the market.

Cheyney Thompson's move to New York coincided with his initial reading of Döblin's novel, and the first paintings he made there are depictions of commercial rubbish: crumpled plastic bags, bundles of flattened cardboard boxes and piles of discarded magazines. Each item occupies its own canvas but is arranged on the wall with a group of others, connected to them by a common vanishing point. Together they form a mouse's-eye view of day-to-day existence: a street-level index of city life as an unbroken cycle of sale and purchase, acquisition and waste.

Thompson retains this focus through to his most recent work, An Event Commencing in the Spring of 1997, a life-size painting of a news-stand destined for Andrew Kreps' booth at the 2003 Armory Show, and later for the Venice Biennale. Recalling Russian Constructivist Gustav Klucis' 'propaganda kiosks', or the more recent versions knocked up from string and brown paper by Thomas Hirschhorn, Thompson's image is a companion piece to a painting of the same edifice made three years earlier. It is also, he says, derived from an idea for a play in which extras and locations replace characters and situations as the primary focus. It documents both change and stasis; details have been altered but the essence of the thing remains. For Thompson the news-stand functions as a map of contemporary afflictions, a guide to the comfortable and seductive illusions by which capitalism (which very much includes the business of contemporary art) sustains itself. In his drive to avoid becoming a mere symptom of such a culture, Thompson shifts his practice and position the moment that predictability beckons, ducking and diving in the finest tradition of the independent trader.

In a series of paintings depicting cheap folding tables, items familiar from SoHo's hectic Canal Street and a million other markets around the world, Thompson appropriates another breadline staple as a supremely adaptable prop for exploring his fascination with different forms of display. Put something on a table and immediately you elevate its status, if only incrementally, by the implication that it might be worth keeping for future use. The tables in Thompson's paintings have nothing on them - they are pregnant pauses, empty parentheses waiting patiently for the arrival of content and meaning. In the sculptures that follow them, however, Thompson abandons restraint and embraces a brimming maximalist aesthetic.

Table of Blood and Guts (2002) is a repulsive mass of plastic joke-shop entrails, spray foam and hair extensions that oozes over the edges of a rickety, hand-built platform. The same table holds up a dozen or so twitching, fuzzy-tailed 'Weazel balls' in Table of Hubris (2002), and a dripping gilded turd in Table of the Golden Faeces (2002). Tiny renditions of the flags of the world crowd Table of Territory (2002), while Table of Tables (2002) is topped with 16 miniature replicas of itself. According to Thompson, this simple piece of furniture has the power to legitimize just about anything. In using it to present a (fictitious) history of his own achievements in drawing and lamenting its increasingly schematic function, he tests this capacity to its limit by appearing to turn it on himself. The results end up somewhere between tongue-in-cheek self-mythologizing and a rather more convoluted deconstruction of process and exchange value - the plinth and the archive.

If the preoccupations of museology intersect with Thompson's work, their influence is certainly matched, or even eclipsed, by those of traditional art history. Wanting to follow up a series of frenetic post-Salle cut 'n' paste canvases with something more tightly defined, he reclaimed a longstanding interest in conventional rendition by working through a sequence of experimental variations on the genres of still life, figure painting and landscape. Paring his subjects back to their basic elements, he turned bodies into monotremata (or, in one case, nothing more than three minutely painted curls of pubic hair), faces into deadpan masks, and outdoor scenes into drastically simplified component parts. A graph-paper ground heightens their engineered look and interchangeable feel, as if the world were made of Lego.

In a series of more elaborate paintings based on these studies Thompson replaces the paper with translucent organza in order to suggest a virtual interzone. He uses images of architectural components organized according to a system of precisely calculated angles and proportions in such a way as to approximate partially completed, or partially exploded, modern buildings. Each plank, panel or brick wall appears to be suspended in the space between the stretchers, the opacity of the paint lending it a remarkable appearance of solidity. Thompson's belief that painters have a responsibility to acknowledge the objecthood of their output is firmly held. Naming the 50-painting series '1741' in homage to Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, whom he admires for his attempts to capture moments of revelatory understanding induced by the senses of touch and sight, Thompson hoped to suggest the possibility of reconfiguring even the most apparently immutable of subjects. The '1741' series represents a benignly revisionist history painting, in which visual perspective stands in for both perfect hindsight and qualified optimism. The artist's self-published booklet Three Paintings (2000), offers a fragmented guide to the territories that he has set out to explore via quotations from Charles Baudelaire and Jonathan Crary, interspersed with details from the works themselves. The dates of each text (1739, 1854 and 1928) are given a full page each, stressing again the inescapability of historical influence and the responsibility of the artist to confront its lingering challenges.

Thompson, a voracious music collector and occasional DJ, once made a ten-minute compilation of his entire record collection by sampling one second of each CD and sequencing them into a continuous stutter of blips and blurts, cries and whispers. Dubbed The Subject of History (2002), like a bored child flipping through radio stations it veers from genre to genre without warning; its chronological ordering reflecting the way in which cultural narratives are filtered through individual taste. In a similar vein, Ibiza Apocalypse (2001) was constructed entirely from the intros and synth breaks of anthemic dance-floor Techno tracks, an eternally hyperbolic build-up with no final release.

Thompson's approach to the arrangement of sound echoes his own mercurial nature, but also makes direct reference to the culture of recycling, distillation and bootlegging upon which Canal Street, and the entire social system that it implies, depends. The twitchy impatience communicated by his treatment of music - an uneasy blend of fascination with the recent past and an insatiable appetite for the new - is consistent with his ouevre as a whole: desire for excess is kept in check by measured pace, and subjected to critique through subtly strategic thought. In Warsaw (2001), Thompson loops and rearranges Ian Curtis' out-of-order countdown to the Joy Division song of the same name until its anticipation is almost, but not quite, dissipated. Identifying the point at which hyperbole collapses into excess, he holds on to its nervy excitement for as long as possible then, finally, lets go.