Mark Tansey's Land Fall is a mystifying landscape replete with hidden meanings and secret messages. Painted in 2007, it depicts a leisurely group of beach-goers as they pause, mid-frolic, to stare out into the ocean at a strange craft headed for the shore. A couple at the far left appear to rub suntan lotion onto each other’s shoulders (an image Tansey took from a paparazzi photograph of Sarah, Duchess of York), while a bike rider (which the artist says is based on a photograph of George W. Bush) casually pedals into the scene. Elsewhere, a lifeguard leans leisurely against her perch while below her a dog gambols along the shore. Like us, they are caught in a moment of looking; peering out at the mysterious craft, imminently waiting its land fall.
What these spectators witness is the unbelievable true story of a Cuban family that twice attempted to reach the coast of Florida aboard a 1951 Chevy pick-up truck that had been converted into a boat. In 2003, they had attempted to cross the Florida straits aboard this makeshift craft only to be intercepted by the US Coast Guard within 40 miles of land, and returned back to Cuba. Remarkably, the family made a second attempt in February 2004 using another homemade boat, this time powered by a Buick Sedan. Again, they were intercepted. More recently, the family was granted exile in Costa Rica, from which they immigrated into Mexico, and finally into the United States.
Tansey’s painting incorporates photographs of the family's improbable journey in the makeshift Chevy-boat as the main focus. Probing deeper into the work, we realise the artist depicts a second image of the boat, just beneath the lifeguard's perch. Looking more closely still, we discover that the beach-goers' reflections are not perfectly mirrored by the water in which they stand. Turning the canvas upside down, a totally new narrative unravels, in which the truck-sailing Cubans have actually made it onto the shore. This seems to be the ‘land fall’ to which the painting's title alludes. In celebration of this improbable series of events, Tansey's figures in this half of the painting are more joyous. And in this way, Tansey creates an alternate reality.
‘Cloaked in gorgeous hues, Tansey uses the family’s story as a potent symbol of class divides’
A vast archive of photographic source material is incorporated by Tansey in his work, much of it culled from magazines like Popular Mechanics and National Geographic. Some of the photographs may be decades old, while others — as in the case of Land Fall — more contemporaneous. Tansey uses a copy machine to assemble these images and when a collage is complete, he paints from it as though it were true.
By juxtaposing the carefree outlook of the beach-goers with the harsh reality of the Cuban freedom-seekers, all cloaked in such gorgeous hues, Tansey uses their story as a potent symbol of class divides. In our media-obsessed society, we can become immune to the barrage of imagery that bombards us throughout the day. By removing the Cubans' story from its original source — the news media — Tansey is able to pierce through misconceptions and prejudices and force us to see their story in a new light.
In Land Fall, Tansey depicts the Cubans' makeshift boat in the ocean, rising upon a great wall of water that is about to carry the boat onto the shore in one final, gigantic push. Rotating the canvas 180 degrees, we see the boat once it's been birthed by the ocean, coming to rest upon the shore. Allegorically, there is perhaps no greater symbol than the ocean, given all of life originated there and countless artists have taken up the subject as their theme.
Alexandre Cabanal’s Birth of Venus (1863) seems a likely comparison, as it depicts the nude goddess freshly born up by the ocean’s waves. Though Cabanal was a 19th Century Academic painter, his work shares affinities with Tansey’s Land Fall, most notably the celebratory aspect of the Chevy-boat’s landing, and the gratuitous news media’s portrayal of the event, which might be compared to the wanton sexuality of Cabanal’s nude Venus — both equally base and meant to arouse the emotions of their spectators.