New York

Mark Tansey

Curt Marcus Gallery

Mark Tansey is one of the most brilliant, exemplary literary painters on the scene. In his works we see the cunning of reason become visual cunning. His pictures offer almost immaculate surface lucidity and uncanny events: a car suspended upside down in the sky, Arabs and Eskimos meeting in a common desert of white. Sometimes the titles, in conjunction with the images, make a witty point. Pleasure of the Text, 1986, suggests that the semiotician studies the partsof a text the way a mechanic studies the working parts of a car. Doubting Thomas, 1986, suggests an affinity between putting one’s hand into a fault in the earth and into the wound in Christ’s side—a similar skepticism in the presence of an eschatological event, a similar refusal to accept a sign of the truth.

Tansey’s pictures are literal in appearance and metaphorical in import, a peculiar mix of the topical and the biblical. By way of allusion, they tease out the universal implications in the aimlessly immediate, imply more than is visible. When we realize that the figures in Forward Retreat, 1986, are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, we have understood the timeless meaning behind their contemporary look. Tansey’s is a profoundly reflective art; it is conservative in that it points us to what is “metaphysically” constant and urgent behind current appearances.

It is also a morally didactic art, using its wittiness to insinuate an existential truth. Triumph Over Mastery, 1986, suggests that our civilization, as much as any in the past, is likely to decline and fall into ruin. The picture gets its power through its image of sublime scale, alluding to the smallness and insignificance of man in the cosmic scheme. Even White on White, 1986, is less a spoof of Kasimir Malevich’s austere compositions than a visionary image of the triviality of man in an inhospitable environment, Tansey reminds us that death lurks beneath the busy surface of life. An awareness of death—difficult to achieve, as Tansey’s devious articulation of it indicates—brings with it an amazing clarification of existence.

We see that clarification in Tansey’s suave surface. Pretending to complete transparency, it is in fact a brilliantly disarming camouflage that signals the imperfection of mass communication: these days, we are more conscious of the media’s mechanisms than of what they communicate. Behind Tansey’s straightforward visibility the same ominous, elusive dream of death keeps reinventing its parts, without ever declaring itself directly His surface is a magical mechanism that lends the semblance of reality to flagrant fantasy and makes the obscene nightmare seem picturesque; through clarity of detail he gives us the illusion of being in control while experiencing the uncontrollable. Tansey paints tourist postcards of the apocalypse, souvenirs which we think will make us miraculously immune to it. Looking at his works is like watching a Hollywood film of a ship sinking while a passenger on the ship: this is reassuring—one’s just in a movie. Tansey shows us just how much our fictionalizing of the truth can anesthetize us to it. The sanity of his surface supports the insane somnambulism of his scenes.

Tansey’s paintings can be understood as still another response to the crisis of the pictorial that has plagued art since the onslaught of media imagery. Whether or not deliberately, the media image has become an instrument of social control by reason of its tendency toward schematic acknowledgment of realities, keeping us tuned in to current appearances and events but repressing critical reflection on their larger significance. A veneer, it seems to contract consciousness, however much it expands visibility. Tansey counterattacks by making the media image casually allusive and absurd, and by hyperrealizing its surface. He moralizes a supposedly neutral means of communication, making it borderline, “psychotic” He reinvents the seriousness of the image by making it a realm of uncanny implications beneath its “straight” surface.

Donald Kuspit