New York

Mark Tansey

Curt Marcus Gallery

Mark Tansey translates the language of art history—particularly terms with scientific and military origins such as “avant-garde,” “revolution,” “discoverer,” and “pioneer”—into literal scenarios that mock the discipline’s self-importance. His Action Painting II, 1984, which depicts a party of plein-air painters outfitted with easels and folding chairs sketching an atomic bomb exploding across the desert, sets the studio-bound heroics of the Abstract Expressionists against the devastating potential of contemporary technology. Elsewhere Tansey presents the postwar migration of artistic energy from Paris to New York as a treaty-signing between French and American artist-soldiers.

With the exception of Wilbur Braque and Orville Picasso (all works 1990), in which two painter-inventors test-fly an airborne cubist collage, these recent drawings turn away from art history and towards contemporary literary theory and philosophy, above all, the current obsession with the word and things textual. Using toner and carbon crayon, Tansey inscribes forms in a writerly fashion and washes over them with a painter’s hand, evoking his simultaneous concern with word and image.

The scenes themselves, typically rocky and barren landscapes, are composed of what appear to be crumpled pages from philosophical texts with words like “deployed” and “superposed” abounding. While Cultivating a Lexical Lacuna exploits the genre of history painting used in earlier works, most of these compositions allude to the less exalted genres of detective novels and boys’ adventure stories. View from Mount Hermeneut depicts a Holmes-and-Watson pair peering off a cliff into shady oblivion, implying that all interpretation is a matter of groping in the dark. Diminutive figures emerging from a cave in Sunstruck Philosophers have the opposite problem of being blinded by the light of exterior reality. In both cases the experts are shown to be woefully inadequate before the challenges not only of the natural world but of the textual world that they themselves have created. The ultimately futile nature of all interpretation is revealed in Close Reading, in which an athletic female scales a sheer face of rock inscribed with a text that seems to grow blurrier the closer one gets.

Wheel, a wooden roulettelike wheel created in collaboration with Fritz Buehner, attacks the more general abuse of words in all spheres of life. Stock phrases borrowed from the media, advertising, academic discourse, and common parlance are inscribed on three concentric bands that rotate to create endless subject-verb-object permutations. Possible combinations range from “Closet formalists armed with historical odds” to “Cave dwellers problematizing the trace” to “Obsolescence experts endorsing accountability.” The whole seductive, addictive game argues that all combinations of words and phrases are equally arbitrary and potentially absurd, each as ungrounded and impermanent as the temporary alignments formed between spins of a roulette wheel.

Lois E. Nesbitt

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