Answering the late 20th century proclamation that painting was dead with a resounding negative, Mark Tansey’s dynamic canvases go beyond subject to question the nature of representation. A ruby-colored testament to both the artist’s technical prowess and analytical backing, Myth of Depth II explores the intersection of painting and photography, with poststructuralist theory. Realized as the 1980s came to a close, this particular work asks the viewer to consider the nature of images in a society perpetually inundated with them. “In my work,” posits Tansey, “I’m searching for pictorial functions that are based on the idea that the painted picture knows itself to be metaphorical, rhetorical, transformational, fictional. I’m not doing pictures of things that actually exist in the world. The narratives never actually occurred. In contrast to the assertion of one reality, my work investigates how different realities interact and abrade. And the understanding is that the abrasions start within the medium itself” (M. Tansey, quoted in A.C. Danto, Visions and Revisions, New York 1992, p.132). Using painting itself as a catalyst to probe the recesses of aesthetic constructs, Tansey creates his own allegorical narratives that help to further illuminate and question various aspects of art and theory. Coming of age in the postmodern heyday of the 1970s and 80s, Tansey joined other artists in a return to representation after the zenith of abstraction. Not simply reverting to a previous mode, the artist instills his compositions with textual references and allusions to larger ideas in order to start conversations infused with humor and intelligence in equal amounts.
Rendered in vibrant red monochrome, Myth of Depth II is grand in scale and stretches seven feet across in a horizontal orientation. The overall composition is based on La Grotte de la Loue, 1865, a painting by Gustave Courbet in the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The left side of the composition is taken over by an arch of rock around a dark, watery cave entrance that seems to fade into a daunting abyss. On the right, a team of eight figures peer into the subterranean mouth in varying states of shock, curiosity, and apprehension. Each of the characters is adorned with identifying clothing and headgear as they line up one behind the other. An explorer in a pith helmet clutches a flashlight. A man in a captain’s hat and a woman with a revolver stand behind him. Then, the seemingly anachronistic addition of a woman wearing headphones next to a man dressed as if part of the French Foreign Legion lead into a fisherman with a net, a photographer aiming their lens, and a workman in a hardhat carrying a bale of wire around a post. In typical Tansey style, each of these individuals seems to have been cut from another scene and then inserted nearly seamlessly into the image. He notes that, “‘one of the most obvious effects of monochrome is its production of a ‘seeming’ unity. Photographic conventions play the key role here, by establishing a plausible space-and-time framework. This framework becomes the container for whatever cultural, ideological, conceptual, or formal conclusions that might occur within it. In a sense it’s a matter of seeing how much force of content the framework can take before its apparent unity breaks down” (Ibid., p.128). By harnessing the uniformity of the monochrome, the artist brings disparate elements together into a cohesive whole. Though each figure might be part of a hodgepodge exploration troupe from a Hollywood movie, the likelihood of such an assortment traveling to this particular rocky outcropping together is slim. Rather, by enlisting figures that all embody the idea of the adventurer and placing them in dialogue with each other, Tansey is able to harness visual devices to coax the viewer further into his cave.
The second painting to bear the moniker “Myth of Depth”, the present work continues Tansey’s exploration of philosophical and aesthetic discussions through pictorial means. In a post-structuralist mode, the artist questions the foundations of art using seemingly obscure representations as a way to peel back layers of theoretical inquiry. The first Myth of Depth (1984) is a blue-green ocean scene that takes Greenbergian Modernism and its insistence of the flatness of the canvas as its topic. “Tansey is suspicious of Greenberg’s claims. In a delightfully pointed painting, Myth of Depth, he depicts Jackson Pollock walking on water while Greenberg lectures Kenneth Noland, Mark Rothko, Arshile Gorky, Robert Motherwell, and Helen Frankenthaler, who are all crowded on a tiny lifeboat. Tansey not only parodies the messianic aspirations of Greenberg and his followers but also suggests that Greenberg’s position is without foundation. If, after all, figuration can be abstract, why can’t abstraction be representational?” (M. Taylor, The Picture in Question: Mark Tansey and the Ends of Representation, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2010, p. 10-11). In its successor, Myth of Depth II, Tansey seems to go even further back, and questions not just how abstraction and representation can be reconciled, but instead what the very idea of representation is in a world so consumed by sussing out originality and authenticity. As the team of explorers approach the entrance, one recalls the Platonic cave and its challenges to understanding; how can we separate the object from an image of an object, and is there even really a difference?
Born in California, Tansey studied painting at the Art Center College of Design, Los Angeles before moving on to Hunter College in the mid-1970s. He became known for investigating theoretical issues related to the history of art and criticism through his monochromatic paintings that mix wry wit with a careful attention to detail and rendering. Though many of the figures and scenes he depicts are culled from a vast collection of magazine and newspaper clippings he constantly adds to, his process is methodical and labor-intensive. Tansey first applies a layer of gesso to his canvas and then covers that with a monochromatic wash in a predetermined color. Then, using myriad tools and techniques, the artist erases and manipulates the top coat to expose the white surface underneath. Working in sections like a fresco, the artist pulls away the paint to create form as the paint dries and changes with time. By doing so, the resulting image is both representational of his chosen subject as well as the time it took the artist to render the scene. Tansey spoke about his time-intensive investigation of the surface, noting, “In a general way this picture-making process is a mode of inquiry carried out by open-ended interplay among many pictorial sources and signifiers. What should be apparent in this stepped process is that the handmade and the reproduced are set into a sort of dialectical dance. Beginning with alternating steps–manual to mechanical to manual to mechanical–and ending up in an embrace so intimate that the two become virtually indistinguishable” (M. Tansey, quoted in J. Freeman, Mark Tansey, Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1993, p. 70). Operating at the confluence of found imagery and more traditional painting methods, Tansey calls attention to illusionistic space on the canvas while making the viewer aware of its artifice. The monochrome, much like a black and white photograph, divorces the scene from reality while the recognizable subjects offer an entry point for further dialogue.