New York

Nicola Tyson

Petzel Gallery | West 18th Street

Nicola Tyson excels at figure studies of the human body—not as it is but as it could be. Like a balloon artist, Tyson twists a basic form into novel arrangements, building an inner pressure that erupts in unexpected evaginations and bulbous erections. Little holes denote misplaced anuses, vestigial urethras, or other orifices of obscure purpose. In Self-Portrait: Early ’70s (all works 1995), a figure—isolated against a flatly painted background that nevertheless suggests the corner of a room—stands with her feet pointed at the viewer and her head at the corner, truncated arms groping blindly like an insect’s feelers. From the midriff of the body protrudes a lump of flesh that could be a pregnant stomach or, taking an ambiguous brown crack into account, a grossly swollen ass. If you could be sure these works were self-portraits then naturally you’d refer to the figure with feminine pronouns, but Tyson deliberately confounds attempts to identify these figures either with herself or with a specific gender. Though the diptych 2 Figures, Six Heads does suggest a division of the sexes—in each panel the figure has arms that culminate in heads, although one figure has an additional head topping a stalk of flesh that originates like a penis in its crotch, while the other has a head that swirls around on an elastic neck to stare into a sexless crotch, site of the famous "lack”—it sets up no hierarchies or distinctions. That is, both creatures have three heads; it doesn’t appear to matter where they sprout.

Most often, as in Tyson’s virtuosic drawings, sex characteristics combine and recombine with the abandon of a polysexual Mr. Potato Head. It’s a sexuality on display, however, in no drawing or painting do two or more figures copulate, as though they were reluctant to perpetuate their mutant genes through reproduction. Each is truly one of a kind—in the eight grids of fifteen drawings presented in this exhibition alone, no figure ever repeats—and this itself makes it difficult to speak of gender, since there’s no possibility of generalizing. Perhaps the obdurate individuality of these figures, defined not by particularized faces, as in traditional portraiture, but by singular combinations of vegetal torsos, insectoid legs, and monstrous genitalia, reflects a deliberate attempt to unleash the power of the freakish—to go beyond genders, classes, categories. Perhaps Tyson’s self-depiction is just this: a portrait of the artist not as a young man or woman but as an anatomical wonder.

Keith Seward