Los Angeles

Keith Tyson

Given the critical antagonism that still faces painting—a sense of abstraction’s diminishing returns, the apparent anachronism of representation, and the assumption of market complicity—the decision to work in the medium today cannot be an easy one to make. Though cautionary notes have, since the 1980s, been repeated to the point of banality, they still represent hurdles to be negotiated before many viewers are willing even to consider what else the artist in question might be up to. Some artists operate with a fierce, perhaps reactionary disregard for such critical touchstones, while others have turned them inside out to produce works that advance the critical profile of the medium and the discourse around it. Still others are mindful of the discursive landscape to a fault, producing work that addresses what cannot be done more insistently than what might still be possible. Keith Tyson’s show at Blum & Poe was a case study both in how, and how not, to successfully paint today.

All three bodies of work represented in the exhibition (“Studio Wall Drawings,” 1997–, “Nature Paintings,” 2005–2008, and “Operator Paintings,” 2006–) reveal Tyson as a restless intellect, a manic producer, and a rogue alchemist, experimenting gleefully and indiscriminately with a wide variety of media and ideas. The most successful work, a four-part piece titled Four Elements (Fire) (Water) (Earth) (Air), 2006–2008, from “Nature Paintings,” is also the most medium-specific in its address. To create the four canvases, Tyson poured paint, pigment, and chemicals onto specially primed grounds that react to produce dazzling color fields that recall natural phenomena like the aurora borealis, gas formations in space, or crystals. By doing so, he concomitantly undermines the autonomy of the artist’s hand, implying that the image generated is beyond both his conception and his reach. The work, to amend the press release slightly, is a set of images of nature by nature, and all the more convincing for the relative absence of the artist. Hung with unapologetic kitsch-flair in a dimly lit gallery, they read like specimens, curiosities, or objects of wonder.

While the work from “Nature Paintings” succeeds because Tyson is able to use a neat conceptual conceit to structure the production of abstractions that are arresting independent of their conceptual origins, the paintings on view from “Operator Paintings” fall flat primarily because they appear backed into a discursive corner that prevents them from being greater than the sum of their parts. Painted on sheets of aluminum, the works have a garish pop-baroque quality, and most come off as a heterogeneous mass of painterly effects. A centerpiece of the exhibition, Operator Painting “Somewhere,” 2009, takes as its broad subject Las Vegas; accordingly, the bottom of the canvas presents a nonsense equation for slot machine success; the middle is a collagelike array with the words JACK POT emblazoned in glowing orange over images of cherries and a garish chandelier; and running along the top is a fifty-digit decimal approximation of the golden ratio. The work as a whole tests the depictive potential of painting against a multisensory cavalcade (for which the artist draws on the various legacies of Raymond Pettibon, John Baldessari, and Lari Pittman, to name just a few). But the effect is mechanical, self-conscious, and strikingly illustrative, more involved with the critical problems that attend fusing the tangible with the intangible than in actually looking for a solution. Tyson’s point may be that there are ontological limits to depiction, but that critical claim does not, in this case, yield a compelling painting.

Michael Baxandall claimed that when one writes about a picture, one is really writing about the process of thinking about a picture. Tyson’s paintings are pictures about thinking about pictures and their reception in an era of acute critical skepticism. As such, there is a great deal to say about the way Tyson’s work reflects the problems that shape, dog, hobble, and ultimately determine the field of painting today. But how much those same works actually advance the practice of painting either in consideration or in spite of those conditions is another matter.

Christopher Bedford