Cheyney Thompson: Part I

By Andrew Maerkle

Installation view of “Chronochromes, Data, Motifs” at Rat Hole Gallery, Tokyo, 2011. All images: Courtesy Cheyney Thompson and Rat Hole Gallery.

I. The Strangeness of Discipline
Cheyney Thompson on conditions of expression.

ART iT: In a previous conversation we discussed international art curriculums and how art travels across different contexts with different value systems. You said, “My concern is always that economic models first and foremost structure those relations and even the types of knowledges – and this may sound like a business manual – that are useful in a global market place. But there are things that are outside of official histories that cannot be easily streamlined into a usable narrative to legitimize whatever it is you’re doing.” How about if we put it this way, in a globalized world the market is the identity; the market becomes the identity, because even though everything is circulating globally the markets themselves remain very local.

CT: Yes, so certain aspects of Relational Aesthetics would seem to be identical with the market through which it circulates – an identity which is diffuse, and yet the same wherever it is: show up, participate, this is a convivial manifestation of democratic form. That’s not necessarily the truth for all artists that fell under this now receding category. One is tempted always to make of Santiago Sierra an exception for his explicitly antagonistic approach. But there is something so reassuring about his work, knowing as the viewer that you’re not the one stuck in traffic, getting tattooed, or supporting a wall. I think the reassurance that comes with the false choice of participating or not is what ties this work to the logic of global art consumption – as if we had a choice.
But in some ways for me, personally, to raise the question of identity in relation to this problem is an important one. I think identity is something that you want to work against in some way. That’s not to say you should become generic or achieve some kind of ultra-homogeneity, which would be like a total integration with the market, but you should realize that the identity of the social relations of a given market are never identical, that there’s always otherness or difference in the appearance of the same. Otherwise we couldn’t speak it. We’d just be like air or space or void.

ART iT: Do you think of yourself as an allegorical artist?

CT: If I understood allegory more, maybe I would. I’ve read Walter Benjamin and I know a little about how allegory functions, and I do sincerely wish I knew more – I’m not just trying to be funny. I would say allegory is a form that is riddled with the particularities of language and its context such that if I place my spoon in a certain way, you understand that as a reading of some kind, and then someone comes to our table who doesn’t know that but can still somehow recognize the arrangement – that’s how I understand allegory. It’s that process by which language departicularizes itself as it shifts contexts, opening itself to being written over. In that sense, yes, I’m aware that the constellations of forms and histories and speech acts are all held together in one precise instant and then potentially lost after that.

ART iT: Are the abstract “Chronochrome” paintings, which convert the Munsell color system into a means of measuring time, and the painting itself into a record of labor over time, an example of allegory? Is the installation of trompe-l’œil paintings of dispersed architectural components, 1998 (2004), an example of allegory?

CT: Perhaps. And even the older sculptures of folding tables that I was doing. That work came at the same time that I was starting to read Benjamin, looking at street vendors as a kind of decrepit form of the Arcades, and thinking that these miniscule arrangements still said something, and that if we were allegorists we could interpret what they were saying. But here we confront a shortcoming of allegory insofar as it tends to produce history as fate, and agency is reduced to divinations of obscure meanings.

Chronochrome Set 11 (2011), oil on canvas, 276.9 x 190.5 cm and 73.7 x 190.5 cm.

ART iT: The reason why I bring up allegory, though, is that when I was reviewing your work and reading about it in preparation for this interview, I was reminded of Pasolini’s film Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975). Obviously there are differences between Pasolini’s grotesque enactment of corrupted sexuality and your works, which on the surface appear to be cool, abstract paintings or installations and sculptures, but in both cases I would say the surface is a misdirection concealing an underlying agenda.

CT: I don’t know if I myself would make that comparison, but it’s very nice that you do. Maybe even more than Pasolini’s version of The 120 Days of Sodom – because he does really show the grotesque more than Marquis de Sade – I feel closer to something like Sade’s Justine, these things that formally are delicately written, beautiful morality tales, but in their degrees of repression and domination are in fact quite horrible in their implication.
For example, my use of the Munsell color system isn’t at all a celebration of the rationality of color. It’s about how any totalized rational framework is necessarily put to work by a body at some point. And in a way it’s really made for that. It’s made as a means of control. As elegant and symmetrical or non-symmetrical or whatever as it may be, it’s really there to lay down the law, and I’m ambivalent about that. Bach composed beautiful and rational music, but it also means that in order to play that music – to realize it – you have to possess an exacting discipline. Your body needs to conform to the rational structure of the music. That process, the body’s mimetic response to instrumental reason, is a core interest in my own work.

ART iT: Is this an almost masochistic pursuit for you?

CT: George Baker wrote a really good text on Dada called “Long Live Daddy: A Dada Montage,” which is also the epilogue to his book The Artwork Caught by the Tail: Francis Picabia and Dada in Paris (MIT Press, 2007). I can’t remember the exact argument, because it is written more in the style of a quarrel, but generally Baker characterizes the Dadas as masochists, whereas the Surrealists were sadists set upon punishing the bourgeoisie. In Baker’s account, Dada was more of an interiorizing of the violence of daily life and modernity, where you have the breakdown of language to stuttering language poetry, or Picabia’s self-portraits, for which Picabia took photos of himself, wrote all over the prints and then cut them up. All of these things are acted out on the body of the artist.

ART iT: In that sense 1998 could be sado-masochist in that the masochism involved in executing an installation of paintings at such a large scale and with such precision gets transmitted to the viewers who are blocked from seeing the complete effect of the work by the barricade that you set up in the center of the gallery.

CT: Recently, I’ve thought about that work more than I have since I made it, because in a way that exhibition in particular was a break from a line of thinking that had been primarily concerned with the history of perspective and histories in general. I grew up with the narrative that said classical perspective was defeated under Cezanne and Cubism, but then with the rise of new technologies between video games and architectural design, perspective has reemerged – seemingly uncritically – as the dominant form of representation today. I don’t know if that is because of the ease with which computers can be used as a drawing tool or if culturally we needed that return of the viewing subject as a fixed and stable point. But I definitely think that when we’re talking about identity and non-identity, the first experience of identity is through the difference of subject and object, myself and a thing, or thought and world, nature and history, whatever it is. That’s the first traumatic split, and what 1998 tries to do with that barricade at the center of the gallery is to cross out the place of the subject, such that your own view on things – your own identity or integrity as a sovereign subject who’s able to make judgments – is temporarily indistinguishable from the world of objects. We have to confront material culture as material ourselves, rather than as the one who simply gives names and categorizes or says, “I see this.” This seems to be a methodological constant in how I think about work: how to annul subjects so that they may be constructed anew.

ART iT: Speaking of identity, what led you to start this reflexive process of dealing with the work of art in the market?

CT: I think it was partly from being an antagonistic teen. I experienced the late 1980s and the 1990s as a big series of disappointments. I was 14 in 1990, and I feel that’s when I achieved a certain level of political consciousness. I didn’t know it then, but even still, I somehow recognized that something was ending. The twin events of 1989-90 were the restoration of Earth Day as media spectacle and the fall of communism. I remember feeling a type of despair in the experience of progressive politics being coupled with aggressive marketing techniques. I guess this was the moment when corporate responsibility as a marketing tool really took root. And of course in the music industry the same thing was happening, with the consolidation of the various undergrounds that had existed through the 1980s and up until that point had preserved some kind of independent status.
There were a number of things that gave me a bad presentiment toward the 1990s – not to mention my own life didn’t feel so good then. I remember joining the Socialist Students’ League in college, and it was just disappointing. The main aspect that I liked about it was this feeling that I was participating in some kind of lived history or tradition of thought, but politically things felt so fragmented all throughout that period for me. All of our actions were ineffective and there was a lot of internal fighting.
Then toward the tail end of the 1990s – in 1998 – I helped start an artist-run space that was in theory going to be completely independent. We wanted to be as professional as possible, but we took a potlatch approach whereby we would work hard and scrape together whatever we could, and the organization would reflect that ethos in some way. It just meant that we wouldn’t sell work or even promote ourselves or the space. There was a concurrent return of the popularity of artist-run spaces and so I saw what we were doing, as makeshift and disorganized as it was, as a necessary counterpoint to so-called alternative galleries like Alleged in New York that were really heavy on marketing and were looking for a way to make at least a decent amount money from a position outside the mainstream, yet so clearly wanted to brand the outside in such a way that it could be readily consumed.

Chronochrome Set 10 (2011), oil on canvas, 119.4 x 190.5 cm and 63.5 x 190.5 cm.

ART iT: Was 1998 a work about the market then?

CT: In a sense, although I still can’t outline it entirely. At first I only made a few trompe-l’œil paintings, then stopped until around 2001 or 2002 when I was preparing my first show at Andrew Kreps Gallery in New York. The last one I made was in 2003 or ’04. To me, classical perspective really complemented the capitalist organization of life, in that the subject was always being placed in a world in relation to the vanishing point – the point of mystification that the subject can’t approach but can only see from a distance – and that was a nice allegory, as it were, for commodity fetishism. You can see the thing that you desire, but you don’t see the social relations or labor that go into making that thing because it’s on the other side of the vanishing point. Relations are preserved in their disfiguring functionality. At the time, it seemed that given a global enforcement of a certain relationship to labor and the economy, it would make sense that this form of representation enjoys the place of privilege that it has and still does.

ART iT: But even if looking at things perspectivally is what we’re conditioned to do by the capitalist system, isn’t the point of non-perspective actually closer to our real condition in that system?

CT: Possibly. That would be the difference between representation and presentation, or the difference between Renaissance painting and the printing press, in that painting preserves and reproduces an existing order of social relations through the use of perspective, whereas the printing press, unintentionally perhaps, works against those relations in preparing the way for massive literacy and the origins of modern democracy. Maybe a distinction you could make is between reading and perspectival viewing. Certainly there are forms of writing that reproduce a point of identity for a subject, but that too has undergone critical revision.
The trap I found myself in with that earlier work was the situation of wanting to critically think the return of perspective, but in deploying it I couldn’t do anything but reproduce the problem that I was trying to critically analyze. And that’s where you rightfully say there’s a sado-masochistic element to my work, because of course I’m producing spectacle when I show 150 paintings that are organized by perspective in that way. Even making them was torture for me.

II. The Index of Robert Macaire

Cheyney Thompson: Allegory of the Body and the Name

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