I took yesterday off and Mrs. Richardson and I traveled to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. It was the second time I had been to this truly wonderful museum. However, I did not recall yesterday having seen Mark Tansey’s 1994 painting, “Landscape,” on our first trip (you can zoom in on the painting through the Sotheby’s page here).
It is an arresting piece, and one about which I would like to share a few thoughts. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say I would like to share my immediate reaction to the piece. It struck me as a poignant piece, and an ironic one, given the current cultural disequilibrium resulting from the seismic shifts in the ideological underpinnings of Western society that have taken place as a result of the project of modernity. In short, the painting was a jarring reminder to me of the necessarily temporal nature of worldviews, ideologies, programmes, nations, leaders, and movements.
Today’s colossus is tomorrow’s footnote, be it a person or a zeitgeist.
The oft-alluded-to ash heap of history is a reality that should comfort those who feel philosophically and theologically displaced by the latest and trendiest orthodoxies of the age. I say “orthodoxies” because, whilst relatively new, the most recent manifestations are shrouded in all the gravitas of orthodoxy and their opponents are essentially viewed as heretics by their priests.
It raises the question: is there a King who will not be discarded and is there a movement that will last?
The Church answers both in the affirmative.
The painting is fascinating to me. Take some time and zoom into the piece and see how many of the faces you can identify.
Lastly, the text from the Sotheby’s catalogue is interesting in its own right, and includes some brief observations from the artist. I am providing it below.
“I think of the painted picture as an embodiment of the very problem that we face with the notion of ‘reality’. The problem or question is, which reality? In a painted picture, is it the depicted reality, or the reality of the picture plane, or the multidimensional reality the artist and viewer exist in? That all three are involved points to the fact that all pictures are inherently problematic.” (the artist cited in Arthur C. Danto, Visions and Revisions, New York, 1992, p. 132)
Armed with compelling intellect and inspiring levity, Mark Tansey is both an architect of thought and a visual archaeologist of the most unruly manner. A history painting of the highest order, the monumentally panoramic Landscape from 1994 draws us into its crimson depths, opening a spectacular vista of rich pictorial data that is completely and utterly engrossing. Calm and deliberate, Tansey’s brush expertly captures the details of overlapping perspective and shadows, inspiring pure awe in its overall scope and close-up precision. Landscape allegorizes history in what appears by its representational nature to be explanatory, but upon close observation one begins to understand that his mound of rubble in fact conceals much more than it reveals; Tansey, like René Magritte, prefers to leave his pictures open-ended, achieving at once an accessibility in its figurative quality while opening the disquieting potential for numerous interpretations and persistent rereading. The resultant tableau seduces the viewer into the artist’s speculative reenactment, which borrows from several historical sources, all artistically choreographed for heightened visual drama. Tansey’s intricately detailed compositions are rife with hidden codas: tiny text, secret symbols, and infinitesimal images which are informed with a greater sense of historiography than any of his contemporaries. A dazzling technician, with a pictorial language that results in achingly beautiful trompe l’oeil, Tansey’s Landscape informs as much as it suggests and answers as much as it questions.
Tansey unravels modes of perception and representation, perennially testing the eye and eluding narrative clarity in favor of incredulous wonder. By adhering to the conventions of representational painting, Tansey encourages an instantaneous familiarity that he quickly corrupts, thereby making us aware of our own susceptibility to images. Though realistic in appearance, the scene is completely contrived. In its complex composition and classical subject matter, the hill of ancient ruins appears rooted in a particular period of painting far removed from the contemporary, and yet untangling the fragments buried in the mountain of Tansey’s painting reveals a completely ahistorical and atemporal narrative. An impossible encounter between antiquity, the Renaissance, and brutalist Cold War-era sculpture, Landscape instead proffers a pastiche of art history, while toppling the past in a hill of wreckage to illustrate the conflicts inherent in fabricating categorical chronologies. Representations of powerful male figures in sculpture from throughout history comprise the hill of debris—excavating the dense surface of the painting reveals the visages of Stalin, Lincoln, Hitler, Julius Caesar, George Washington, and Constantine enmeshed among remnants of archaic Egyptian pharaohs, Mayan kings, young male kouroi, and the Sphinx, an assortment of characters both real and invented. Tansey constructs a pyramid of testosterone-fueled history, jumbling a collage of famous men to seduce the viewer into an alluring game of identification. The proposition presented to us in untangling the web of references is simultaneously thrilling and daunting, enhanced by the instant recognizability of some with the ambiguity of others’ foreshortened and warped likenesses. In Landscape’s monolithic tower of political rulers whose empires eventually faced upheaval with the inevitable progression of time, Tansey tracks a recurrent plotline throughout history of territorial competition and patriarchal dominion—the painter seems to suggest the ceaseless repetition of history in the landfill of rulers past. Deceptively legible, Tansey’s paintings offer us the promise of veracity in their naturalistic style, yet quickly by their supernormal mélange of constituent elements we decode the dream-world of the painter’s mind, populated by the relics of bygone dynasties.
The compositional drama is formally underscored by the exaggerated chiaroscuro. Storms of shadowy red envelop the atmospheric force of the painting’s amplitude, creating an overwhelming tonal value that lends the work its striking immediacy. Evocative of the surrealist landscapes of Dalí and de Chirico, who melted the space-time continuum by shattering perspective and confusing light and shadow, Tansey’s Landscape harnesses a resounding visual power that enraptures the eye and stimulates the mind through foreshortening and optical illusionism. Tansey’s method of painting is excruciatingly time sensitive. Beginning with applying a heavily gessoed ground to the surface, layer upon layer of paint is then successively added to build up a rich surface from which Tansey carves and swipes away paint with a variety of tools and implements. Working within the six hour time frame before his paint dries and becomes unpliable, Tansey operates under formidable time constraints, akin to the technique of fresco-painting. Through his additive and reductive method, Tansey takes on the role of draughtsman, painter, and sculptor. His images thus emerge from the monochromatic abyss by means of a constant process of wiping and pulling pigment away in order to render the painstaking details that fill the vast expanse.
Exemplified by the ingenuity of the present work, Tansey is a virtuoso of narrative, culling his themes from a litany of rhetorical sources and filtering them through his distinctly surreal imagination. When postmodernist thought gained traction in the 1970s with the pioneers of the Pictures generation—artists such as Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince, and Louise Lawler—art concerned with the mechanics of picture-making and representation intentionally evaded painting. Committed to searching the archives for means of persistently questioning the nature of images, Tansey’s strategy of appropriation within his painting to investigate historical modes of image construction was increasingly unique. An extraordinary bibliophile, Tansey draws from various texts—literary, cinematic, and peerlessly uncanny, Tansey’s painting evokes an insatiable curiosity that is coupled with unforgiving intelligence. Landscape maintains a photographic exactitude in its monochromatic resplendence, enrobing the surface of the canvas in a sumptuous wave of luscious red. As is the case of all of the most sought after works in Tansey’s aesthetic arsenal, Landscape is deliberately monochromatic; he varies the value but not the tone of his colors. Like a black and white photograph, Tansey’s monochrome contours evoke the outmoded and archaic, yet spun through the preposterous tone of deep cerise. The hue is as otherworldly as the picture itself, a breathtaking image whose reality is belied by the photographic nature in which it is painted.