Four Cannot Compete With Five
Kenny Schachter conTEMPorary
Steven Thompson’s second exhibition at Kenny Schachter conTEMPorary is made up of six new works. Next to the gallery’s serpentine silver desk is the largest piece, "Top Down Bottom Charm." The only verbosely titled work in the show, the sculpture is a combination of different elements. A triptych made entirely of rows of elongated, horizontal plastic bags hangs pinned to the wall. Approximately the dimensions of a flattened baguette, each sack is filled with pieces of thin Bass wood that Thompson has carved into and drawn on. The wood is stencil-like and the cuts range from repetitive decorative edges to intricate incisions sliced in the middle of the planes. The positive forms, extracted from the whole, are sometimes layered back in with their own (or other) negative armatures. These bags are complicated, and effect a heavy, opaque state. Thompson leaves others spare and singly occupied, and the contrast creates an effective interplay of light and dark that applies not only to the tone of the piece, but to its sense of weight as well. The sculpture is given depth and spatial presence by curvilinear wooden forms that snake out of the wall and into the viewing space. Thin and fragile constructions, the twisting skeletal bits reminded me of train tracks, and in turn the horizontal fields became dense wastelands or sites of urban detritus. The sense of a marred terrain is reinforced by the numbers and letters drawn on nearly all the wood, and interweaving of known symbols with patterned curly-cues and abstract doodles. Like the graffiti that covers stretches of subway tunnel walls, Thompson’s markings have a coherent internal flow that nevertheless comes across as illegible (yet ordered) chaos to the novice eye. Thompson operates like a cartographer with his own set of ciphers, and the work maintains the measured distance of an impenetrable other world.
Landscape plays through the rest of the works, simply titled "One," "Two," "Three," "Four," and "Five." Four of these are essentially drawings, although each maintains an inherently sculptural quality. Like "Top Down Bottom Charm," their power and engagement comes from an elaborate system of layering and coding. Working like an animator, Thompson creates three-dimensional depth by placing specific elements of a scene behind a main front tableau made of tracing paper. The abstracted forms show through the cloudy scrim as shadows, and the flat exterior image is enriched through the sensation of elongated space and weighty mass. Often, the pieces are more interesting when viewed from the side where the flimsy constructions— often affixed with scotch tape— begin to look like cross-sections of a piece of earth. The drawings themselves are crude and rough, and at times the simplistic forms are not enough to engage either formally or conceptually. The work sneaks by overall despite its raw and childlike aesthetic, but is far more successful in the pieces where polished attenuated lines counterbalance the brash.
"Two," is the other sculpture in the show and it is made entirely of erasers, some of which are partially covered by a homemade white wrapper. The rectangles are stacked in a single circular construction whose piled blocks resemble a twig basket, a brick well, or a medieval tower. Some of the erasers have been used and their grimy corners, slightly greasy and slick with wear, donate a sense of pathos to the strange and useless form. The abject quality of the piece— culled as well in the particularly functional (and forgettable) choice of materials used throughout (modeling wood, tracing paper, scotch tape)— is perhaps the moment to address the element beyond landscape that unites the pieces: the ghost. This is Thompson’s term. It is impossible not to think immediately of Philip Guston and his hooded forms devoid of face and articulated shape when confronted with these black-and-white oblong, wide-eyed sprites. They appear as paper cut-outs in "Top Down," peering behind friezes and popping out of holes, and squirming through the cracks of "Two," while in the drawings they are penned in forms. Creatures of a dismal world, they seem desperate to convey a sense of despair. Yet they are not pathetic, terrible, nor fraught, and ironically, their ubiquitous presence seems to imply Thompson’s own struggle with how to "finish" work. In their oddity and unresolved state, however, they interestingly suggest an artistic practice that is comfortable being awkward, and that could continue to expand in exciting and unpredictable ways.