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Mark Tansey’s monumental painting Land Fall is a complex and provocative work in which reality and allegory intertwine, creating a mystifying landscape replete with hidden meanings and secret messages. Painted in 2007, Land Fall adheres to a monochromatic palette, having been solely rendered in varying shades of ultramarine, a color that combines the depth and richness of black with the transparency of blue. The painting depicts a leisurely group of beachgoers, each engaged in various recreational activities. 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 frolics along the shore. Tansey’s painting captures the figures as they pause, mid-frolic, to stare out into the ocean at a strange craft headed for the shore. Like us, Tansey’s beachgoers are caught in a moment of looking; jolted out of their leisurely revelry, they peer out at the mysterious craft, imminently awaiting its land fall. What these spectators witness, out amid the waves, is the unbelievable true story of a Cuban family that twice attempted to reach the coast of Florida. In 2003, a group of Cuban family members attempted to cross the Florida straits aboard a makeshift boat powered by a 1951 Chevy pick-up truck, only to be intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard within 40 miles of the coast, and returned back to Cuba.
Remarkably, the family made a second attempt in February 2004 using another homemade craft, 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 of the painting. Probing deeper into the work, we realize Tansey depicts a second image of the boat, just beneath the lifeguard’s perch. Indeed, still looking more closely, we discover that the beachgoers’ reflections are not perfectly mirrored by the water in which they stand. Turning the canvas upside down, a totally new narrative unravels before our eyes, 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 ebullient.
In this way, Tansey creates an alternate reality contrary to the historical events as they actually took place. He says, “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 with the medium itself” (M. Tansey, quoted in A. C. Danto, Mark Tansey: Visions and Revisions, New York, 1992, p. 132). Tansey incorporates a vast archive of photographic source material in his work, much of it culled from magazines like Popular Mechanics and National Geographic. Some of the photographs he employs may be decades old, while others—as in the case of Land Fall—more contemporaneous events. Tansey uses a copy machine to assemble these images and when a collage is complete, he paints from it as though it were true.
Stunningly beautiful, Tansey’s works are never as they appear on the surface, however. By juxtaposing the leisurely beachgoers frolicking in the surf with the harsh reality of the Cuban freedom-seekers and their utter desperation, all beautifully cloaked in such gorgeous hues, Tansey is able to use their story as a potent symbol of class divides. In our media-obsessed society, we often become immune to the barrage of imagery that continually bombards us throughout the day. So, by removing the Cubans’ story from their 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. By isolating the subject, cloaking it within an idyllic dreamscape, the image gets back some of its original visual impact. In this way, Tansey’s paintings force us to see anew.
Tansey’s complex narratives often invoke allegorical meanings that are hidden within the ordinariness of their depiction. 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, considering the fact that 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, as a tumble of putti float above her, blowing conch shells in celebration. 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 utterly gratuitous aspect of the 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.
Tansey’s Land Fall renders a contemporary news event through the historicizing lens of narrative painting, creating a stunning visual landscape that boggles the mind but pleases the senses. The painting’s title, Land Fall, while describing the chevy-boat’s physical landing upon the shore, might also hint at the painting’s 180-degree counterpart; does the land literally fall away as the image is turned upside down, further destabilizing the sense of reality or unreality in Tansey’s work? Mark Taylor writes, “in contrast to modernist painters who forego titles or use numbers, Tansey regards titles as integral to painting. …His titles are not only about the work but are woven into pictures in a way that confounds any clear opposition between the visual and verbal aspects of the work of art” (M. Taylor, Ibid, pp. 61-63) Like a Zen koan, that both provokes meaning while simultaneously preventing it, deciphering Tansey’s paintings is perhaps just outside our grasp, but the pleasure of contemplating the puzzle is certainly worth it.