Keith Tyson

Haunch of Venison | New Bond Street

Probably only a muddleheaded art critic would ask such a question about genetics, but here goes anyway: What’s the ontological status of a genotype? If a genotype is an organism’s genetic coding and a phenotype its genetically determined physical properties (brown eyes, big ears, etc.), then, given that genes themselves are physical, observable, genetically determined entities, isn’t a genotype a type of phenotype? Alternatively, if genotypes should be understood as pure information, an essentially intellectual construct, doesn’t this make them something of a linguistic, even metaphysical, quagmire for the geneticists investigating them?

The likely upshot of the above Keith Tyson–inspired ramble is that half-baked language philosophy plus scrambled science equals frittered brains: Tyson’s predilection is for stuff that, in his words, “messes with your noodle,” specifically the problem of inhabiting simultaneous but incompatible paradigms of knowledge. His “Geno/Pheno Paintings”—a series of diptychs, of which twelve, all dated 2004, were shown here—adopt and adapt the genotype-phenotype formula as a means of both exploiting and refusing the notion of creative autonomy. In each work, the left-hand panel supposedly constitutes a genotypic “blueprint” for the right-hand side. The left-hand image of Thirteen Swords over the River Jordan lists two possible motifs, one designated HEADS, the other TAILS; its right-hand image shows that HEADS (swords and river) won the toss. Belladonna’s right panel offers a casual commentary, in jazzy multicolored type-scripts, on the haphazard evolution of its left panel’s muddle of imagery (it includes three cutesy kittens and a crudely “expressionistic” painting of a knife-thrower’s assistant). A Question of Free Will pairs painted studies of spindly-legged windup toys (on the left) with a monochrome surface on which the toys themselves, dipped in black paint and then set in motion, have scuffed trails of “footprints” (on the right).

My confusion over the genotype-phenotype distinction might well come down to the fact that all these works could perfectly logically have been hung in reverse. In Tyson’s universe, geno- and phenostatus is merely a function of positioning. This dedifferentiation connects with a larger anxiety playing out across the show, also evident in a piece from another series, the epic, fifteen-part Soup Painting 2: Primordial Soup with Homoeopathic Dilutions, 2003–2004. A large central panel (set in a bilious puce frame) furnishes visual raw material from which the smaller panels’ designs are extrapolated, step by step. Chains of association can be traced, but Tyson’s stripping-out of emotional resonance from his imagery is total; one visual “event” is of as great, or as little, consequence as the next. Cheerfully loud and ugly, rigorously devoid of conventional “painterly” appeal or sensuous spontaneity, the work’s efficiently technical execution precisely matches the uneventfulness, the ultimate indifference, of the imagery.

Tyson has observed that he sees his works as “stills” from an infinite continuum of possible productions, and that the emergence of the specific from the general is one of the fears that keeps him awake at night: “It’s a painful thing to try and understand the specificity of your existence given the boundless potential, if you have a sort of free-floating mathematical mind.” For those without such a mind, the absence of any genuine sense of the event, the sheer anomie bodied forth in these paintings, may seem far more appalling. The show’s black humor reveals that Tyson knows this. The Bigger Picture Emerges runs the title of one work. Bigger picture? Smaller picture? When all possible pictures are equally inconsequential in anthropocentric terms, the scale or scope of the view is a matter of indifference.

Rachel Withers