New York

Mark Tansey

Curt Marcus Gallery

“Dumb it down,” could be a motto for Mark Tansey’s work. Everything in a Tansey painting funnels into a one-liner. He uses writers and other artists as “straight men,” insinuating the viewer into a good-natured complicity, that only a sourpuss would spoil. At the same time, the paintings make disconcertingly large claims for themselves; Tansey aims to critique nothing less than discourse itself.

Using Robert Smithson’s drawing A Heap of Language, 1966, as his point of departure, Tansey creates a “ground” of stenciled, rubber-stamped or rendered type from which he conjures forth his images. These pictures portray scenarios set against the sort of landscapes Smithson was known to favor: rocky gorges, gaping chasms, natural bridges, and mountain ranges. Throughout, Craig Owens’ essay “Earth-words,” 1979 (in which Smithson’s A Heap of Language figured prominently) hangs heavy; the allusion to this text, however, is fraught with opportunism. Tansey’s version of allegory is worlds removed from Owens’ use of this literary prototype to formulate a critical post-Modernism.

In the most explicit of Tansey’s new paintings, entitled Derrida Queries de Man (all works 1990), two figures wrestle or dance on the edge of a precipice. One can almost hear the obligatory response to the title’s pedigree, “Gee, this must be smart art.” Close Reading reveals a female rock-climber scaling a vertical incline, her face pressed up against the near-uniform textual cliff. In the upper-left corner the words “blindness and insight” stand out in emphatic boldface, lest anyone miss the point. Under Erasure relentlessly milks the same figuration. Here a waterfall slowly erodes its rocky bed, but not without a cloying pair of pay-binoculars installed behind a guardrail in the lower-right corner. In all of these works Tansey sticks to his trademark style: a monochromatic realism for which he shows considerable facility. Valley of Doubt, a painting in which a jumble of blocklike letters melds into a broad desert plain, is the strongest of the lot because it is the most austere.

Owens argued that Smithson’s genius was radically allegorical insofar as it evinced a desire to redeem the remote past for the present by, paradoxically, supplementing or replacing the antecedent meaning with one of its own. He construed the role of the allegorical artwork to be interventionist, yet intimately bound to the irreversible processes of dissolution and decay. In sharp contrast to this fundamentally melancholic impulse, Tansey smugly exploits this au courant approach. The pointedly denotative function of his pictures promotes a conservative, even reactionary, version of post-Modernism. Although intended to deflate intellectual pretensions, these works, through their metacritique, ultimately indulge in an arrogance that is far more irritating than any of their targets.

John Miller