Absurdist Science in the Futuristic Art of Thomas Chimes

Over five decades, renowned Philadelphia artist Thomas Chimes has created work that suggests scientific realms just beyond our grasp. His pieces function like pages from alchemical texts, components for alien technologies, or figures from obscure mathematical treatises removed from their context—things pregnant with meaning, but impossible to unravel. 

Thomas Chimes: The Body in Spirals” at Locks Gallery explores the artist’s preoccupation with the arcane by focusing on the synthesis of mathematics, physics, geometry, and alchemy in his work. 

The exhibition brings together pieces spanning Chimes’s career, with an emphasis on the minimalist metal box constructions of the 1960s–’70s and the white paintings that typified the final years of his practice in the 1990s and early 2000s. The formal subtlety of the pieces belies the rich lexicon of cabalistic symbols and references that appear throughout Chimes’s art. While this language can be observed, however, it is unlikely to be understood; this is work whose esotericism begs scrutiny while deliberately keeping the viewer at arm’s length. Early mixed-media pieces resemble the panels of machines with layers of brushed aluminium and hardware that suggests functionality—it’s impossible to look at Abstraction: Metal, Glass, and Linen (1973) without feeling an urge to pull at its latches or to take a screwdriver to its screws to see what’s inside—but machines built for what purpose? 

Chimes’s white paintings are similarly enigmatic. From a distance they are empty canvases, but faint images surface upon closer inspection. In some, the traces of geometric diagrams can be distinguished—Fibonacci’s nautilus-like golden spiral recurs—accompanied by tiny pencil marks and notations in Greek. In If One Can Measure (1994), the shadow of a figure is visible. Hatted and hunched forward, it’s Alfred Jarry, French absurdist writer and inventor of  “pataphysics,” an imaginary science that borrows the language of mathematics and physics to describe fantastical solutions, one of Chimes’s principal sources of inspiration.

To coincide with the exhibition, Locks Gallery hosted a talk on November 15th between Michael R. Taylor, director of the Hood Museum, and Matthew Affron, curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, to discuss Chimes’s legacy. During their discussion Taylor noted, “It would be great for more people to be aware of what [Chimes] accomplished. And as you see tonight the work looks as fresh as the day it was made.” The exhibition is also accompanied by an extensively illustrated catalogue, which includes an inventory of the artist’s library. Semioticians, cryptographers, and admirers of Chimes’s work will no doubt comb the titles for clues and connections. 

—Jenny Florence

Thomas Chimes: The Body in Spirals” is on view at Locks Gallery, Philadelphia, Nov. 8–Dec. 13, 2014. 

Watch the full conversation between Michael R. Taylor and Matthew Affron in the accompanying videos.

Follow Locks Gallery on Artsy.