New York

Michael Tetherow

James McCoy Inc.

As the title of Home Boy with Add-on of Yellow Rapture, 1987, suggests, Michael Tetherow’s works on paper have a certain ecstatic dimension. In this piece, a swarm of painterly gestures, largely in primary colors, climbs the surface to form a crazy web. The gestures drip nonchalantly, but they also sting. Behind them, drawn in pencil, is an eye, the “inner eye” but also, implicitly, the eye of the viewer, blinded by these dazzling gestures. It could also be the eye of nature, since Tetherow has been working outdoors for the last four years, allowing insects and animals to leave their traces in his pieces, a practice that both adds to the gestural chaos and signals a primary process. It is as though Tetherow were hoping to entrance us—to alter our consciousness “by chance” the way his sense of process alters his.

Though there is an Arshile Gorky–esque look to many of Tetherow’s drawings, they are haunted in a different way: where Gorky used nature to articulate his sense of the mystery of sexuality, Tetherow uses it to articulate his own mysterious otherness, one suggested by various hallucinatory faces. Nevertheless, both artists convey a sense of muted agony with atmospheric means—with linear, seemingly random accents. And both make self-reflexive as well as self-reflective works. Even in Tetherow’s “Bird Calls” series, 1991–92, there is a sense of melancholy, conveyed through the dark staccato of gestures breaking through the joyously bright, lyrically fluid surface. In other words, Tetherow conveys ambivalence with exquisite tact.

In an untitled work of 1985, Tetherow’s subjective “difficulty” is made explicit: a precisely pencil-drawn, if morbid, figure contrasts sharply with the hallucinatory, disintegrating head within which it is placed. It is as if Tetherow were confused about what is fact and what is fantasy: the fantasy head should appear in the matter-of-fact figure, as though it were its vision, but Tetherow reverses the relationship between them. Such reversals prevail in his works, as though to mark the inseparability of unconscious fantasy and conscious perception.

Ultimately, Tetherow wants to merge figure and ground in an indecisive drama of inchoate forces, emblematic of the merging of self and nature. Tetherow is a nature and paint mystic, but a peculiarly unhappy one. It is as though the self he finds when he dissolves into nature suffered too much to disappear completely. The use of painting to convey morbid states of mind is hardly new, nor is the use of lyric expression to realize that epic intention, but Tetherow carries it off with great conviction. He reminds us that a cogent uniqueness is still possible with the old means of pencil and paint. It is this sense of unvanquished singularity and sensitive interiority that distinguishes his work.

Donald Kuspit