New York

Mark Tansey

Grace Borgenicht Gallery

The allegories that generate initial interest in Mark Tansey’s paintings, for other reasons than that of admiring his technical competence, prove ultimately to be topical. There is no single “sense” to any of them, unless the artist’s sardonically descriptive titles are to be taken at face value (which I doubt). How many reversals of the Judgment of Paris are meant in the large picture of that name which shows three men scrambling over and down a log obstacle, under the scrutiny of the high-heeled 1940s-style blonde in the foreground? Likewise, whose or which kind of purity is in question in Purity Test, wherein five pony-mounted Indian braves overlook Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty from a distant promontory? Is it really an Hommage to Susan Sontag, this picture of a woman under bed clothes pointing a pistol at a photographer, old-fashioned press camera in hand? Unlikely. It would be simplistic and comfortably within the theoretical cul-de-sac of Photo-Realism to assume Tansey means what he says, quite as he says it, either by word or image. Although he uses photographs to organize and inform his imagery, and paints realistically, in a para-academic illustrative way, these are not Photo-Realist paintings—at least not as we commonly understand that rubric.

Tansey’s replication in sepia or blue-green grisaille, with near-photographic accuracy, of the images he takes from essentially nondescript ’40s and ’50s magazines and catalogues, involves a displacement of meaning which suggests something other than “realism.” The things in his paintings are recognizable from such sources as film noir (among others), but so willfully recontextualized as to be problematic. We know of them, but they are so sharply severed from the present that none has particularity of significance; they are icons of an era. The specific titles become all the more debilitating, then, anchoring as they do something grandly free to a relatively mundane depiction. Thus the two large sequential paintings shown here, The Four Forbidden Senses and A Short History of Modernist Painting, suffer in direct proportion to their literal logic and legibility: a one-to-one correspondence of image to meaning.

Such paintings as Chess Game or Take One seem better in their compounding of figures and scenery onto a single surface, and their titles allow some play as well. The most generically titled picture, Illumination, is the one in which Tansey most fully exploits the ambiguities of deadpan representationalism. A female figure lying on a sofa shields her eyes with a paper from the unwelcome light of a nearby torchier being lit by a man who simultaneously stares down at her face. This painting, one of the blue-green grisailles, brings together the elements of inferred drama and nostalgic familiarity that seem so attractive to Tansey. Elsewhere his assault on Modernism falters, since the irony that infuses most of his work is in itself one of the principal hallmarks of Modernist painting. Tansey’s patently non humorous pictures propose a much more interesting connection, cognizant of the improbability of its successful achievement, and possibly unique, to the likes of Edward Hopper.

Richard Armstrong