View of “Nicola Tyson,” 2017. From left: Outside 1, 2017, Outside 2, 2017.

View of “Nicola Tyson,” 2017. From left: Outside 1, 2017, Outside 2, 2017.

Nicola Tyson

Sadie Coles HQ | Davies Street

View of “Nicola Tyson,” 2017. From left: Outside 1, 2017, Outside 2, 2017.

Nicola Tyson’s painted forms are bodily. In some, I see human traces. In others, I see animals, trees, and plants. Her subjects are natural bodies—all living entities. They are not perfectly formed, however. Tyson creates them with light, broad sweeps of acrylic paint, using a dry brush, exposing slivers of white linen canvas, revealing the paint’s movement across the surface. Tyson’s recent exhibition “A Tendency to Flock” consisted of seven paintings in a rich palette of dark red, burnt orange, and varying shades of blue (turquoise, baby, sky) and (green forest) alongside numerous browns, pinks, and yellows, invoking qualities of flesh and hair that are not necessarily human. For example, Outside 1 (all works 2017) depicts an entity that is animalistic in its rounded body complete with pink teats; plantlike via its bark-brown branches; and quasi-human in its facial traces. Outside 2 is all animal: a body with a shell like that of a beetle moving across the ground horizontally on at least four legs.

Tyson’s paintings do not mirror the world that we see with our eyes. Rather, they invoke a kind of dreamscape; the forms are familiar, we understand them, but we cannot quite place how we know them, or where we saw them, or why we are seeing them again now. Our experience of them is not so much a cognitive knowing as a corporeal recognition. I felt I could reach out and grab the pathetic floppy teats hanging from the tree woman–guinea pig.

To describe Tyson’s approach to figurative abstraction the gallery’s press release refers to Austrian painter Maria Lassnig’s use of the terms Körpergefühl, meaning “body sensation,” and Körperbewusstsein, “body awareness.” Tyson’s art does indeed conjure the experiential nature of corporality as a sentient body. But with its bold psychosexual forms, it is also performing critical work that is more complex than it appears at first glance. Square Self-Portrait depicts something that resembles a face, surrounded by swaths of brown hair, with horizontal, bone-like objects coming out of the shoulders and head––like an armature holding the artist’s head upright. The face has a flat, masklike quality, with numerous brown, pink, and green holes that could be eyes, nostrils, or windows to nowhere. If you didn’t look too hard, you could have read it as a Francis Bacon/Pablo Picasso mash-up. As it happens, in 2013 Tyson published Dead Letter Men, a book of missives addressed to deceased male artists, including these two. The letter to Picasso begins: “A journalist recently asked me if as a female figurative painter—as opposed to a figurative painter—I’d been influenced by you, which I thought was a bit like asking if my diet had been influenced by Monsanto. Unavoidable.” Tyson goes on to dissect Picasso’s role in early-twentieth-century primitivism and to decry his art-historical dominance. The book is a kind of diaristic account of Tyson’s relationship to an array of male modernist artists, positioned as a humorous critique of a gendered version of art history. Critical as she may be, Tyson’s abstracted bodies owe to Bacon’s deconstructions of the human form and psyche what Bacon—an artist with whom Tyson describes herself as having an s/m relationship—owes to Picasso’s brand of Cubism. Tyson’s biomorphic entities are carefully constructed assemblages, which critically incorporate traces of her predecessors into her own painterly language, resulting in a world that is vibrantly alive, aching with heavy corporality. Yet on closer inspection, these strange bodies are also brutally flattened, reduced to their thin layer of skin, to paint.

Kathy Noble