New York

Mark Tansey

Curt Marcus Gallery

Despite some positive advance press, Mark Tansey’s recent show was quite poorly received. How did he become a public enemy? He is producing pretty much the same work now that he has for years. His technique and approach have changed little (too little, perhaps), and if there is anything wrong with them it has been wrong for a while.

When Tansey emerged, though, in the early ’80s, he surfed a pair of incoming tides: the refreshment of painting (and of representational imagemaking in general) and the interest in theory, two strong currents in ’80s art. The combination hit. On the one hand, illustrational though Tansey’s pictures were, painting enthusiasts could enjoy the work’s thin and controlled surfaces and monochromatic palettes for their bracing stringency in the sloppy neo-Expressionist moment. On the other, the work’s textual references and jokes on painting made it available to young theorists, as well as to an older generation attached to the idea art of the ’70s and sorry to see its day pass. In this way Tansey brought together audiences that grated on each other elsewhere. Today, though, the decision to paint is less novel than it was fifteen years ago, and is acted upon with considerable variety; idea art too is resurgent in many neo-Conceptual forms. What the two halves of Tansey’s audience back then found a canny fusion they may now consider a slack compromise, for there is plenty of new work around that fits their respective interests more neatly.

I confess that the surfaces of Tansey’s paintings look less convincing to me than they did; their thinness, alternately washy and scratchy, has lost authority through the absence of slathery neo-Expressionism to bounce against. That is a real stumbling block, but it reflects more a change in the times, and in the viewer, than in the work, and one might as plausibly praise Tansey for his consistency through changing circumstance as accuse him of failing to keep up. More problematic, however, Tansey’s ideas seem to flow less freely than in his better shows, and to be less witty (unless I’m missing something, which, given the dryness and the literacy of Tansey’s humor, is quite probable). About, 1997, for example, shows a two-branched waterfall; one stream falls into a pool, with canoe, at the bottom, and the other falls into a pool, with canoe, at the picture’s top. The which-way-is-up painting joke is in no way revelatory.

There’s more going on here, of course, in terms not just of the mechanics of visual illusion—notice that it is only the pool into which each chute falls that tells you the direction of their flow; the rendering of the streams is the same—but of a ripple of scientific and temporal associations suggesting the arbitrariness of our understanding of the physical and temporal world. What becomes, after all, of the old truism that you can’t step in the same river twice when the river makes nonsense of gravity? Time collapses is what happens, as it does more explicitly in Soft Borders, 1997, where four different eras coexist on the same mountain, again placed upside-down-and-sideways. The exhibition’s tour de force, Transition Team, 1992, does something similar with a scene of both drunken and literal dissolution: some kind of liquorous public party is breaking up—presumably a metaphor for the crash that closed the ’80s—but the image keeps ending, then repeating, in different scales and different degrees of compression, as if accuracy were impossible in recording the scene.

Paintings like these have a pleasant sense of a puzzle to be solved, but the danger is that the puzzle is as weightless as a crossword; one can’t always talk one’s eye into satisfaction. Transition Team, though, has a kind of doomed grandeur, a ship-of-fools mood. And in my favorite work in the show, Interception, 1996, people wrestling with a sheet on a heath on a windy dark night, trying to catch the images hidden in a blasting beam of light, form some kind of picture of the simultaneously harebrained and epic struggle to make art.

David Frankel