Visual ventures

Visual ventures

Different strokes

Visual ventures

Mark Tansey’s work typifies the complexity of time and age, when certainty seems more elusive than ever, observes Giridhar Khasnis.

Over decades, American painter Mark Tansey has consistently produced images that have pleased the eye and teased the mind. On the face of it, his pictures seem to realistically portray landscapes, domestic interiors, everyday life or historical occurrences; only on closer scrutiny do they surprise and startle the viewer with a flood of unexpected quirks, references and visual puns. “I am not a realist painter,” says the artist.
“I’m not doing pictures of things that actually exist in the world. The narratives never actually occurred. In contrast to the assertion of one reality, my work investigates how different realities interact and abrade.”

One of the foremost artists of the country, Tansey often combines photographic, illustrative, and painterly elements in his work by successfully manipulating the conventions and structures of figurative painting. His intriguing pseudo-realist canvases include meticulously rendered but imaginary incidents which mingle and rearrange places, landscapes and historical figures in a complex interplay of reality, illusion and representation. A veritable catalogue of conflicts, contrasts and contradictions, they also traverse various points of time by incorporating past and present, young and old, living and the dead.


Often dominated by cascading waterfalls, majestic mountains, rocky terrains, eccentric cloud formations, swirling waters, furious oceans, and distorted anamorphic skulls, his paintings also portray thinkers, poets, artists and a wide range of characters in theatrically designed compositions, where a surfeit of images emerge, fuse, collide, recede, swap and re-emerge with gay abandon.

As an observer points out, Tansey’s work typifies the complexity of our age, when certainty seems more elusive than ever. “In his paintings, it is difficult to determine whether east is west, up is down, left is right, or good is evil. The literal is the figurative, and the figurative is literal. Tansey embraces this ambiguity and invites the viewer to participate in a visual and metaphorical adventure.”

Embracing ambiguity

Born in 1949, in San Jose, California, Tansey has, over time, become synonymous with his monumental and distinctly monochromatic pictures. His unique ability to convert the ordinary into extraordinary, and build up strange connections between ideas and events through wit, humour and irony have earned him many admirers across the globe.

Tansey says that the pervasive sentiment in the 1970s that “painting was dead” became a direct and strong influence on his art. The dense imagery that invades his canvas can be linked to many sources including clippings from magazines, journals and newspapers as well as his own photographs and other miscellaneous material of historical references and pictorial reproductions.

His creative process begins by stretching, rotating or cropping forms, combining images and photocopying them over and over again until a collage emerges to serve as a preliminary study for his paintings. He also works in stages of small sketches and drawings that provide the foundation for his final paintings. “My work is fundamentally drawing,” he says.

“Everything in my practice is an extension, elaboration or enhancement of drawing. Despite my prolonged focus on a variety of reproductive processes, with no other visual medium can I achieve such complexity with such simple means.”

Tansey’s paintings have won him widespread admiration and critical approval. They are hailed for their astonishing simplicity even when they venture into the depths of complex human conditions. “I think Tansey has a wonderfully sharp wit,” observed eminent art critic Robert Hughes. “I’ve never seen a work of his that I didn’t find interesting.”

Among Tansey’s many well-known paintings are Triumph over Mastery II, where a man is seen whitewashing Michelangelo’s masterpiece Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel; Sea Change, in which a rowboat encounters a huge splashing wave, with the Statue of Liberty in the background; and Purity Test, which has five Indians on horseback looking out over the lake, with Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty in the background.

In A Short History of Modernist Painting, Tansey depicts three approaches to painting that artists have embraced since the Renaissance; and in Action Painting II, he shows men painting the scene of a space shuttle launch even as it is seen taking off. In a whimsically brilliant case of re-enactment — Picasso and Braque — the two celebrated cubist artists replace Wright brothers in the famous photograph of the first airplane flight.

Tansey freely indulges in retranslation, re-interpretation and relooking at historically existential situations within a remarkably contemporary context. Thirty-three years ago, he painted Triumph of the New York School, rated among his most prominent pictures. It was inspired by The Surrender of Breda (1634–35), which pictured a poignant moment of war when the Spanish took over the Dutch town of Breda on June 5, 1625.

Tansey converted Diego Valazquez’s masterpiece into a modern picture in which New York artists, including Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Greenberg, were put in victorious army uniforms while Andre Breton signed the treaty of surrender in the presence of Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp and others. In another incredibly fascinating work of irony and humour, The Innocent Eye Test, Tansey posed a large cow in a picture gallery staring at a 17th century painting of a young bull.

Perplexing images

It is no wonder that many critics see how Tansey’s work is original and philosophical besides being a critique on art itself; and how his seemingly realistic, densely textured, perplexing paintings defy simple description and easy interpretation. They also feel that the fundamental argument put forth in Tansey’s paintings is that ‘representation is not dead, it has only changed form.’

“Tansey illustrates the power of art to communicate,” explains a critic. “He works from both hemispheres of the brain, involving the viewer in his work by incorporating art history, science, math, geography, literature, rhetoric, logic, and even illogical onto his canvas. Charged with denotative and connotative meaning and framed by rich metaphor, his work makes powerful and sometimes surprising statements. As the artist, he is the first cause, the one who transforms his questions and preconceived ideas into an image. The viewer must then deductively and inductively translate that effect.”

On his part, Tansey says that his artwork presents dilemmas where different theoretical systems collide. “My system is very different from that of modernism. You can call it a lover’s quarrel.” He also believes that illustration and representation are fundamentally necessary to heal the rift between art and practice, between symbol and meaning. “I like the idea of reverse deconstruction, which is construction… I’m working with pictorial rhetoric; how we read different kinds of visual order.”

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