Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Picture In Question

A Response to
"The Picture in Question:
 Mark Tansey and the Ends of Representation"
by Mark C. Taylor

The imagination loses vitality as it ceases to adhere to what is real” (Stevens 6).

The historical criticisms that have arisen from 'picturing a text' are as ancient as the philosophies of Plato, declaiming artists as “tricksters” and “magicians” (Taylor 8). The evolution of this can be tracked through Structuralism and Clement Greenberg's prescription of Formalism to the Expressionists, followed by the postmodern, Post-Structuralist assertions of philosophers and theorists like Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. The Picture in Question follows the painter Mark Tansey as he systematically deals with the problems inherent in these criticisms by way of his paintings. The author, Mark Taylor, guides us along in a textually illustrative chronology of the painter's oeuvre, and explicates much of Tansey's process throughout.

I feel fortunate to be a representational painter in a time in which Mark Tansey exists and works. He wields a technical brilliance with oil paint that is on par with the acumen of his conceptual thinking. With these skills, he has boldly confronted the philosophers, historians and critics who, for decades, insistently provoked an end to representation in painting. In doing so, he has taken the front line of a new vanguard of representational painting, clearing the way for a long overdue reinstatement of this honorable practice back into the discourse.

Unfortunately, the book contains no images, and the author asks that his audience overlook this glaring omission. The justification for this is that Tansey revoked permission to reproduce the work due to his fear that Taylor's take on his paintings and processes would further the dominant criticism of his art as illustrative. This rationalization almost subverts Tansey's raison d'être, in that his work primarily argues that text is not the dominant force in representation and that the visual (his paintings, specifically) renders it with greater efficacy. His pictures are, of course, the proofs of his arguments, and I would have liked more inclusive and immediate reference points than the visual source list in the index.

It is a mistake to look at the earlier works of Tansey and write them off as smug, anti-establishment visual puns. There is a great deal of thoughtfulness to the nature of Tansey's questioning. The fact that he does this via image is, in itself, a nonstandard stratagem. His images are so technically (formally) superior, that it compels the viewer to engage beyond what seems like “surface cleverness.” However, as I read further into Taylor's explication of Tansey's paintings, I wondered about the level of engagement required to decode the metaphors he puts forward.

An accessible quality of his work is his use of a monochromatic palette. Rather than undertake the codified allusions of color, he focuses sharply upon on form and content. These elements comprise the visible 'text' with which he develops the themes and narratives in his work. The nature of his palette is also helpful in developing one of his more common motifs: ambiguity. For instance, in the painting White on White, (1986) [fig. 1], the wind-blown atmosphere in which the Inuits and Bedouins meet is either a snowstorm or a sandstorm. Due to the lack of color, the clarification is withheld, and it becomes both at once. This, of course underscores and subverts the binary opposition inherent in the subjects – a clever critique of post-structuralist thinking.

Less accessible is the content of Myth of Depth, (1984) [fig. 2]. Taylor does well to set up the cast of characters and the scene: Jackson Pollock walks on a turbulent ocean surface, while in a nearby dory, Clement Greenberg lectures to a coterie of Abstract Expressionists (Helen Frankenthaler, Arshille Gorky, Robert Motherwell and Kenneth Noland) (10). Once this is established, it is clear from the title (text) and the cast that Greenberg is showing the group that the realistically depicted water is not real and therefore has no depth, so it is perfectly safe to walk upon. The Ab-Ex 'messiah,' Pollock, demonstrates this with typical bravado. The argument is two-fold: Is depth in painting a myth? In the modernist, New York School of the 1950s, it most definitely was. But what of this scene? It may be 'just' a representational work, but it clearly depicts depth. So, pictorially, we see the binary opposition of Formalism versus Content. This dovetails into the second part of the argument – an historical one. The era of Expressionism was primarily about stifling representation via jettisoning content and painting experientially (expressively). However, the visual depiction of the feeling of painting is, in itself, a representation. So perhaps what Greenberg is pointing to is not Pollock, but maybe the necessary end of Expressionism, as it cannot free itself completely from its own subjectivity.

There is a difficulty here regarding the density of metaphor and encoding that takes place. What kind of viewership is conversant with (for example) the teachings of Greenberg, the philosophies of Derrida, the arguments of Foucault, their respective relationships to modern art history, and is possessive of a visual familiarity with the physical likenesses of these very individuals? Clearly, much of Tansey's work is for the visual consumption of an academic audience, and a very particular one, at that. In fact, I would contend that the primary audience for the bulk of the paintings (with a few exceptions) described in The Picture in Question are the very individuals (and/or their acolytes) depicted therein. This predilection can be better understood through Taylor's admission in the book's preface that Tansey's thorough investigations in modernist/postmodernist philosophies and criticisms paralleled his own. (Taylor x). But this does little to alter the fact that most viewers are not privy to such great depths of academic knowledge and understanding.

Another debatable aspect of Tansey's work is not his use of (and subversion of) binary opposition as a critique against postmodernism, but how many of these concepts were fashioned via his “Color Wheel.” He created a table-sized wheel comprised of three nesting wheels which turn on the same central point [fig 3]. Graphed on the inner ring are nouns; the center, participles; the outer, nouns or noun phrases. This “wheel of language” gave Tansey textual referents for titles with which he might create more than five million possible images/combinations. There is a humorous aspect to this, as this process bears a resemblance to the “exquisite corpse” Surrealist word game. Titles like Pathologists Demonizing the Prophylactic Eye represent a typical combination. Taylor's support of this “gaming” tactic is clear: “As Tansey spins his wheels, the questions his paintings investigate proliferate” (53). This may be so, but the initial texts generated must be held up for questioning first, since, as I've illustrated, they may be rather questionable. This gamesmanship may bait critical thinkers in the know, but I would argue that this places some of his work even further away from the reach of a larger audience.

The explicit chronology that The Picture in Question employs shows the necessity of Tansey's experimentation with conceptual mechanisms like the Color Wheel (the artist calls such devices “technophors”) as he was consistently striving to visually reconstruct that which had been deconstructed via modern critical thinking. Since many different strategies of critique had been used over time, Tansey had to change up his visual tactics with each historical encounter. By the mid-1990s, he had visually demonstrated faceted, flexible responses to much of art history's important modern critiques. His limited but learned (not to mention influential) audience witnessed an emboldened, informed questioning of modern art discourse using the unlikely vehicle of representational painting. With this as a bulwark, he turned his incisive mind to its future.

Using the newer scientific studies of catastrophe theory, chaos theory and complexity theory, Tansey charted a new and highly ambitious course for his work. To my mind, and in this book, these advanced modes of concepting culminate in 1994's Water Lilies [fig. 4]. This is a contemporary take on Monet's paintings of the ponds at Giverny. The figure of Monet himself is visible as an inverted reflection in the upper middle section of the painting. However, unlike the art-theoretical contexts, philosophical premises and specific personas depicted in many earlier works, Water Lilies functions in a pictorially rich, but textually free dimension. Every visual is seen a state of “punctuated equilibrium” – the tipping point at the edge of chaos. The water cycle is depicted in flux between its primary states of solid (ice), liquid, and gas (clouds), and the very growth of the water lilies out of the thawing pond's surface is under imminent threat of the rushing water coming in from a breach in the pond at the right. Between these elements, there is a space of tension where the water is glass-smooth. However, in this space lies the reflection of storm clouds, foreboding that perhaps this calm is just a transitional moment, and that disaster may, in fact, befall the threatened lilies. There is no visual cue to onto which one may hold, nor with which to bring closure to the meta-narrative. The flux of time and the interstices of space are seen in a perpetual state of change, ever perpetuating new changes.

At length, The Picture in Question shows Mark Tansey initiating dynamic changes in his art, probing different visual strategies to reveal the endless transitions of being, nature and time. This reflects Werner Heisenberg's principle of visualization: What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning” (78).

Works cited:

Heisenberg, Werner. Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science. New York: HarperCollins, 1958. Print.

Stevens, Wallace. The Necessary Angel. New York: Random House, 1946. Print.

Taylor, Mark. The Picture in Question: Mark Tansey and the Ends of Representation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. Print


jamie peeps said...

Whew, that's some serious art speak!
I've always loved Tansey's work, and now I have gleaned a bit more about his multiple meanings. Great writing, Rob!

Rob S. said...

Ah, thanks Jamie! Yeah - words, words, words. It doesn't come as easy as the paint, I'll tell you that. But if you enjoyed this, read the Downes review a few posts down & then see the show in December (the 17th is the opening). I can't wait!