Notable for his meticulous process as much as his contributions to postmodern thought on painting, Mark Tansey’s dynamic canvases are pervaded with conflicting imagery that marries nostalgic elements with an eye for drama and the traditions of art history. Search for the Right Address is a striking example of the artist’s work from 1996 as he embraced a process at odds with the dominant mode. Each of his canvases starts with photographic sources that are then realized through a methodical process that begins with a layer of gesso and an application of one or two colors which are then scraped, brushed, and scratched into his meticulously detailed scenes. By using an archive of images culled from multiple sources, Tansey is able to create fictive realities that hover between representation and painterly abstraction. The artist has noted that “a painting takes a few days to a few weeks depending on the complexity of subject matter. The quick and intense painting process is usually a pleasurable antidote to the preceding months of preparation” (M. Tansey, quoted in A.C. Danto, Mark Tansey: Visions and Revisions, New York, 1992, p. 127). Well-versed in the history of art and postmodern theories around images and image-making, Tansey pushes painting into new realms that subvert the traditional processes in an effort to question and explore the art form as a whole.
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.”
Rendered in dark tones that flow downward in a gradient from blue to red, the prominence of black in Search for the Right Address gives the piece a visual weight and heaviness that Tansey punctuates with minute scratches of white. The midground is overwhelmed by a large outcropping of rock that seems to be mostly in shadow. On the right and left, rushing waterfalls frame this monolithic escarpment and pour into the watery foreground. Catching bits of reflected light, the surface of the pool is buffeted by small ripples and spray but remains glassy and inscrutable to the viewer’s gaze. Across this water, walking toward the left side of the painting, two figures wade up to their knees while carrying a box-like form. What at first resembles a crate used to transport artwork becomes a mathematical diagram with no actual physical substance whatsoever. "I am not a realist painter," Tansey explained, noting further, "In my work, 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, Mark Tansey: Visions and Revisions, C. Sweet (ed.), New York, 1992, p. 132). The two men, both in hats and one without a shirt, seem to be carrying a large object, but their burden sits in a strange balance between the physical and ephemeral. This could not exist in the real world, but the photographic sources create the illusion of realism that tricks our eye and allows for a moment of recognition that pulls us ever deeper.
“Like the space of the mass media in which bits and pieces of information are broken loose from their historical grounding and freely recombined into novel configurations, the landscape Tansey describes is one in which radically dissimilar events and places can gracefully coexist.”
Though not a landscape painter per se, Tansey’s treatment of the environmental features in works like Search for the Right Address recalls the sublime vistas of 19th-century painters like Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt. At the same time, the focus on capturing the human figure in relation to these imposing rocks and mountainous formations brings forth Romantic ideals that mix with a sense of grandeur seen in the photographs of Ansel Adams. The convergence of painting and photography is important when reading Tansey’s paintings as the artist uses a vast archive to piece together his compositions. Working with found imagery from sources like Popular Mechanics and National Geographic, he assembles a prototype collage that acts as the basis for his grand treaties in oil. Critic and art historian David Joselit noted about Tansey’s early work, "Like the space of the mass media in which bits and pieces of information are broken loose from their historical grounding and freely recombined into novel configurations, the landscape Tansey describes is one in which radically dissimilar events and places can gracefully coexist. Although his use of grisaille reads most immediately as a reference to old photographs, it also recalls the space of film and television. And yet in spite of their metaphorical reflection on the mass media, the paintings refer to another era of art-historical pastiche: academic art of the 19th century. Through the historical displacement which this similarity suggests, Tansey is able to reflect on the present in images clothed by the conventions of the past” (D. Joselit, "Wrinkles in Time; Mark Tansey," Art in America, June 1987, p. 109). Using extant imagery, Tansey sidesteps the problem of what to paint in favor of how to paint it. The knowledge that each painting is actually a carefully curated selection of figures, landscapes, and objects calls for a deeper reading in an effort to extract the artist’s references and original intent.
Lot Essay Header Image: Present lot illustrated (detail).