Painting is a doggedly powerful medium. Not merely as defined by its visceral exactitude or allegiance to color, but in its ability to strike at the core of who we are—to register on levels of the psyche otherwise untouched by the parlance of everyday life or pedagogical dogma. Chameleon-like in its ambitions, it can reject the psychological trappings of the mind, replacing them with the cool sequence of pattern and repetition. It can deny our humanity or, conversely, embrace it—so closely, in fact, that even in the fading light of time, we can detect the unctuous aroma bridging the gulf between us and this mercenary of color. If done well, there is no escaping it. If done poorly, we are left with the pang of sagging disappointment—as if scorned by a lover, or worse, stung by callous indifference.
On ViewFriedrich Petzel Gallery
September 8 – November 5, 2011
The work of British artist Nicola Tyson resides within these categories. Her most recent suite of paintings, on view at Friedrich Petzel gallery, seals her investment in the art historical tradition of this gooey interlocutor. Eight large panels line the gallery walls in a sherbet-hued mélange of psychological tension. In almost all of the works on display, two figures engage in various acts of conflict.
Exaggerated and/or truncated limbs, perfunctory stances, and a sickly palette of Pepto-pink define most of the characters’ physical forms. In “Couple” (2011), two faceless figures, outfitted in what could only be described as S-and-M apparel (holes cut for the breasts of the female, the same for the buttocks of the male), coolly stare each other down. It is a faceoff in which nobody wins. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of Tysons’s work is that nothing seems to be either lost or gained. Conflict, trauma, and opposition are all in stasis; the imagery as resistant to interpretation as the subjects’s emotions are resistant to each other. There is no evolution, no denouement. There is only raw, menacing tension, often offset by the artist’s unconventional palette of oversaturated pastels.
In the painting “Two Figures on Orange” (2011), what can be construed as a lovers’ quarrel is in progress. The male form, foregrounded and defined by exposed cranial tissue (the result of scribbled lines peeking through from the original drawing), sports a shirt of cobalt blue, the boldness of the fabric further offset by a swirl of piquant orange that activates the painting’s negative space. In the distance, facing right, is a female form. Garbed in an amorphous crimson shell that links the head and torso together, her exposed legs and face reveal the marks of emotional warfare, bandaged and broken by strips of flatly applied paint. While such formal devices may appear reminiscent of those masters that have come before her, a humorous irony lifts Tyson’s work out of the realm of Francis Bacon and into the 21st century.
For this reason, the artist’s characters seem precocious and self-absorbed; although occupying the same picture plane, they almost never interact. Their actions, rather, are grandiose theatrical displays, rooted in one of two things: the allegorical illustration of our distanced (and distracted) means of communication; or the inability of painting to heal the trauma of a sickly society (which, as history has proven, is an unfair and impossible charge). Tyson’s figures are parodies of themselves. In observing their failingly human attempts at connection, one does not know whether to laugh, cry, or to simply maintain that stance of ironic distance that allows us to ingest the work in the first place.
“Two Figures Touching” (2011), for example, is almost comical in its depiction of human interaction. Here, two figures engage in a shouting match of pattern and color. A figure, masked in a violet stocking that reaches to her fingertips, spreads its arms in baseball’s universal gesture of “safe,” while its Buren-striped blouse plays diagonally, and loudly, off the other figure’s checkerboard pants. Looking off into the distance, they refuse to acknowledge each other’s clownish stance and attire, deaf and blind to their companion’s presence. The mounting frustration of the exchange is deftly depicted in Tyson’s hurried strokes and brazen use of drawing—aggressive movements of paint and color that send the eye darting back and forth across the expanse of the composition. Slowly, we begin to realize that this is not a laughing matter. Rather, the overloaded display is a vision of humanity at its breaking point.
But if Tyson’s paintings are an exaggeration of life, the diminutive sculptures featured in Friedrich Petzel’s adjacent gallery space are their pallid cousins. Measuring no larger than eight inches on any side, these flaccid executions made from white Crayola Model Magic and one in bronze retain little of the paintings’ dynamism. Tyson is an accomplished painter with something interesting to say. She should stick to that terrain.