Somewhere Some Pictures Sometimes
A funny coincidence happened on my way to see Cheyney Thompson’s exhibition of new Quantity Paintings, entitled Somewhere Some Pictures Sometimes. First I stopped in at David Zwirner’s to see all the blue paintings that Ad Reinhardt ever painted. Then I headed over to Thompson’s exhibition of monochromes. He uses a biometrically secure punch clock, which he designed, that is constantly counting through each possible permutation for the exhibition to determine the 16 paintings that will be on display on any given day, from a total of 80 paintings. For this exhibition, the sequence of 16 numbers printed each day (which correspond to the numerical titles for each painting) is captured when gallery workers punch in each morning. The paintings are produced in four sizes—S, M, L, XL—and five colors—red, yellow, blue, black and white. It just so happened the numbers generated for that day’s installation had resulted in an exhibition of all the blue paintings Thompson ever painted—at least all the blue monochromes he painted for the 2017 Quantity Paintings. “What are the odds of that happening?” you might ask. Based on 80 paintings, produced in the five colors and four sizes, on exhibition for a total of 44 days, the number of possible combinations is 152,587,890,625. It’s a very conceptual number (one I take completely on faith) but it provides a sense of scale for the Reinhardt-Thompson continuum that presented itself that day.
Perhaps that continuum is actually a diffusion model that describes two painters who occupy seemingly opposite, but also occasionally intersecting, positions within a crowded field that includes every other monochrome painter, too. For Reinhardt, “how a painting means” was a function of “how it looks.” Or, perhaps more accurately, “how we look at it.” For Thompson, “how a painting means” is a function of “how it is made.” Simply looking at his paintings isn’t going to get you where you want to go. To crack the code that regulates the Quantity Paintings, one must resort to the numbers and the text.
Both artists work in relation to histories that involve emptying, although neither eliminates the hand or the idea of a subject—one who drives the practice, one who responds. Reinhardt advocated suppression of any reference to the physical and mental activity of making the painting, figuring that “a picture is finished when all trace of the means to bring about the end has disappeared.” With his black monochrome last paintings, he decreed that he wanted “to push painting beyond its thinkable, seeable, feelable limits.” What he sought might be described as a retinal fusion-event, powerful enough for the viewer to blast free of distraction and to experience a fundamental unity dependent on dynamic, near-immaculate surfaces as a prerequisite to transcendental experience.
Thompson offers none of that. Instead of Reinhardt’s invisibility Thompson goes for visibility. He proposes an ongoing, exhaustive inquiry into painting, with a promise to make visible the mesh of networks at play, from production to exhibition to distribution. In this expanded field, he defers sheer visuality to the primacy of ideas. In the 2017 Quantity Paintings, as in other of his repetition series, every move is apparently pre-determined. In this ever-changing scheme, no two installations are ever the same. A random walk algorithm is used to specify the total volume of paint to be expended, calculated proportionally in relation to each canvas, down to the amount of paint per brush stroke. The idea that governed application was efficiency and speed: get the job done.
Underscoring the self-reflexive agenda, Somewhere Some Pictures Sometimes—the title of the current exhibition—mirrors that of his 2012 exhibition of quantity paintings, Sometimes Some Pictures Somewhere. Both titles express ideas of randomness, as if to say these pictures are like others in their exchangeability. It would seem every aspect of painting has been quantified and executed according to a system that valorizes standardization and sameness. The Quantity Paintings broadcast ideas of stability and control, continuity and critique. Painting becomes informational as opposed to intuitive. Yet in all of this there is a hefty quotient of formal elegance. The cerebral affiliations with mathematics and systems theory, the precision of the project, the cataloguing systems, the storage units—all of it is mapped and managed to a high sheen.
It’s passé to speak of truth in art. Instead, we talk in terms of in-depth analysis and deconstructing the “problems” of art. We’re determined to reveal the actual circumstances that underwrite the production of meaning or, as Roland Barthes termed it, the real system. In Thompson’s practice, it is the real system we’re promised, instrumentalized by an algorithm whose application determines almost, but not quite, everything. How much can it really account for? Should we examine our expectations? Increasingly algorithms regulate the everyday world—what ads we see, what news we read, what can and can’t be communicated. Algorithms are tools, programmed by humans, with foibles fully intact. They don’t always take us where we want to go. In relation to Thompson’s practice, this begs the question: Where is the algorithm effective and where not? It determines how the paintings are made and displayed—but to what extent is painting’s networked condition actually revealed?
Thompson promises to demystify painting and to fully account for its regulatory systems, yet he deletes any mention of the market. It’s ironic that money drops out of the picture, because the very notion of “quantity painting” has the potential to conjure doubt regarding over-inflated production practices and markets for late Modernist idioms in art. How do the Quantity Paintings function from a monetary perspective? What are the production costs in relation to the possible profits these paintings might generate? How is the artist’s labor calculated as a factor of the economics of the project? What is the pricing structure and how is it formulated? Are any algorithms deployed to determine gross and net profits? It seems that what’s always missing from “exhaustive inquiries” is how the money works. When asked, the gallery was forthcoming about the price range, starting at $125,000 for a suite of five small paintings. (They are sold only in sets: five canvases in five colors, each.) The prices go up from there. Of course, everybody gets nervous when critical coverage of art turns to money: it’s still so backroom and private. But if the fiscal field isn’t part of the picture, then don’t give us the “exhaustive inquiry” mumbo jumbo because it’s just rhetoric. That’s my quarrel with the work. Everything is made to seem so purely and perfectly logical and accounted for, but in the final analysis the Quantity Paintings obscure the very mechanisms they purport to make visible. They promise full disclosure, but as it turns out that’s probably just another one of those “modernist myths.” And here we fell for it, all over again.
JAN AVGIKOS is a critic and historian who lives and works in NYC and the Hudson Valley.