Keith Tyson

The mythology of Western art is full of stories about the “secrets” of the old masters—the special recipes, techniques, tools, and machines that incredulous viewers assume must account for the production of the great masterpieces. Today the cultivation of weird recipes seems to have become an end in itself—which may explain the proliferation of unconventional media and methods. No wonder the viewer of contemporary art so often feels like an initiate who is being let in on a secret.

Keith Tyson (b. 1969) both celebrates and parodies this state of affairs. He says his prolific output of mixed-media work is generated by an “Artmachine”—supposedly a complex network of computer programs, flow charts, and books that produce proposals for works of art. Tyson keeps the precise nature of the Artmachine under wraps so that no one knows what it is exactly.

Judging by Tyson’s work, the Artmachine functions less like a methodology and more like a muse, but one that insists on excess. At Tyson’s recent show, the gallery was packed with all manner of strangely configured curiosities, over and around which one had to peer and clamber. Although Tyson claims that the Artmachine renders his work impersonal, each item is studiously hand-built, manifesting a chunky, weather-beaten physicality.

By and large, the Artmachine breeds lovable monsters. Artmachine Iteration: “Country Fair With Prize Tent,” 1996–99, is a sort of genetically modified Anselm Kiefer. Nominally a painting of prize cows garlanded with rosettes, it is a whopping twenty-six feet long and ten feet high. Propped at an angle against the wall, the base of the picture is swathed in real straw. The painting itself is made from an unholy mixture of straw, oil paint, and silicone that has been liberally dripped and splattered onto a wood support from which two-foot-long, paint-drenched dowels protrude, resulting in an image that verges on the unintelligible. Tyson offers us a speeded-up history painting, one that simultaneously shows its heroic subjects in the prime of life and in the inchoate mush of death. These prize cows have been put through a visual shredder—minced and kebabed.

Experiments in fusion: 12 expressions of a slow-breeding stardust reactor, 1999, comprises a painting, called the “generator plate,” along with an installation of twelve mixed-media sculptures on banana-yellow plinths. The painting is a Miróesque monochrome abstract (in the same regulation yellow), with a small hole cut in the canvas near one end. Presumably this is the orifice through which the sculptures—ungainly yet raucous biomorphs fashioned from materials such as kidney beans, soil, flowers, painted gauze, and deeply pooled household gloss paint—have been “generated.” It’s like being in a natal clinic for sculptural outtakes.

You’d need to be a sleuth of Holmesian proportions to spot all the nuances in Artmachine Repeater: “Dual Workstations (30 seconds late and 30 seconds early).” Two seemingly identical workstations—each with nondescript desk, chair, filing cabinet, plants, bulletin board, and photographs—have been placed side by side against a gallery wall. But there are differences: Tyson has tried to create the effect that the workstations exist sixty seconds apart. The various dues are not immediately apparent, however. The only obvious indication of any discrepancy is the one-minute time difference on the LED docks resting on each fling cabinet—the tiniest of cracks opening up before us, giving us a glimpse of private, out-of-sync, defiantly double lives.

James Hall