“Cheyney Thompson: metric, pedestal, landlord, cabengo, recit,” the artist’s first museum survey, was something of a homecoming. Thompson graduated from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in 1997 and stayed in Boston the following year, cofounding the Oni Gallery. (He currently lives and works in New York, where he shows at Andrew Kreps Gallery.) There was little nostalgia on display, however, in an exhibition that encouraged a reading of Thompson’s practice as an entanglement of institutional critique and personal experience.
For some time, Thompson has addressed art as a system of production and reception, from the manufacture of canvas to the exhibition and sale of objects. The selection of paintings in the show included 16 “Chronochromes” (2009), gridded compositions of small organic forms shaped like dried leaves but based on a magnification of the weave pattern of canvas. These are executed in regular modulations of color keyed both to the moment at which they are created and to a color system invented by the early 20th-century Boston artist Albert H. Munsell.
Other paintings integrate references to the artist’s surroundings. Eight are based on CMYK color separations of a photograph of the artist’s landlord, while several others on digitally manipulated photographs of the artist’s clothing and personal documents. Five sets of five monochromatic offset lithographs depicting the storage facilities at Andrew Kreps brought the artist’s professional environment into the show, as well. Creativity, materials, daily life and the art world become the algorithms of an ongoing artistic production.
The most recent pieces in the show are seven sculpted pedestals, all from 2011, built primarily of brightly colored Formica-covered wood. In size, each equals the surface area of Thompson’s body, and each supports objects of personal significance. The sculptures offer a counterpoint to the cooler references of the paintings. Aluminum tubes wrapped with reproductions of the “Chronochromes” sit on a low extended plinth in Pedestal XX; two lamps given to the artist by his landlord rest on the chrome beams of the architectonic Pedestal XXIX; and 12 shot glasses and a bottle of sake adorn the squat red-and-black Pedestal XIX. They imply that the artist’s existence may be framed by systems, but that he is not constrained.
Despite its claims otherwise, the List exhibition flouted rationality. Nothing strictly logical seemed to underlie the artist’s inclusion in his sculptures of an I Papua New Guinea hat or a book with photos of scarred penises. Likewise, Thompson’s painting technique defies neat characterization, in one passage assertively tactile and painterly, and in another lost in affectless pattern. This survey, though it initially appears to celebrate an exploration of systems, leaves the impression of being as much memoir as analysis.
Photo: View of Cheyney Thompson’s exhibition “metric, pedestal, landlord, cabengo, recit,” 2012; at the MIT List Visual Arts Center.