Los Angeles

Mark Tansey

Mark Tansey’s paintings conjure a dream world—that of someone who’s fallen asleep during a lecture on the history of Modern art. Haunted by the likes of Marcel Duchamp and Jacques Derrida, his work teems with disorienting encounters, seamlessly mixing references to old master compositions and Popular Mechanics. Nested within this dream world are the dreams of various 20th-century avant-gardes, which are alternately parodied and saluted in what amounts to a case study in transcendent ambivalence.

That Tansey seems stuck was evident both in his modest traveling retrospective, curated by Judi Freeman, and in a gallery show of recent work. For 13 years, Tansey has tirelessly milked the tension between his tinted, monochromatic realism—a style evocative of old-fashioned illustration and photography, and hence a supposed conveyor of “truth”—and the fictitious histories and fables he depicts. This contradiction is meant to augment our notion of “realism,” reminding us that representation itself is a type of dream, a shadowy mirror world where oppositions can unexpectedly merge and the only “truths” are the unnatural ones of artifice (reflections, the meeting of opposites, and shadowy caves [read: Plato’s] are all recurring Tansey motifs).

Unfortunately, instead of problematizing his own referential acts, Tansey trots out tepid ambiguities and visual sophistries. His trademark is a cutely ironic literalism: if Paul de Man and Jacques Derrida see the world as a text, Tansey coyly takes them at their word, composing sublime landscapes from pages of their books. These drole commentaries occasionally boomerang with a vengeance. Matrix, 1993, depicts a massive machine that refashions paint and text into critical and artistic masterpieces; it’s hard to imagine a more astute summary of Tansey’s own formulaic approach.

For all their pictorial ingenuity, Tansey’s canvases obsessively return to a limited set of targets, including avant-garde artists and critics, whom he presents in World War I military uniforms—a dig at their purist and “revolutionary” rhetoric. Though a few early works are wryly-pointed, by the time we get to 1992’s Sola Scriptura, in which a cadre of old soldiers stare across the tracks at their latter-day SoHo counterparts, humor and intelligence have been reduced to a predictable symbolic algebra.

A couple of other paintings from 1992, both of which reexamine heroic Modernist moments, similarly set us up for nonexistent punchlines. In The Enunciation, 1992, Duchamp contemplates his alter-ego Rrose Sélavy in the window of a passing train; Picasso and Braque, 1992, features the title characters, who modestly refer to each other as Orville and Wilbur Wright, trying to launch an airplane modeled after an early Picasso collage. Tansey deflates these key moments of discovery with a knowing whimsy, but, you want to ask, What does he know? Ultimately, he appears as a kind of Don Quixote, tilting at theoretical windmills. The result is work that seems peculiarly academic—guilty above all of reining in its own possibilities.

Ralph Rugoff