Mark Tansey’s Invisible Hand is a dreamlike painting laden with strange and evocative imagery. Painted in 2011, it depicts an enormous hand that emerges from the cliff-side of an icy mountain precipice. Inside the hand, Tansey illustrates the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange as it would have looked in the early 20th Century. Rendered in a hushed palette of luminescent aquamarine, the Lilliputian traders that Tansey portrays have an ethereal quality, as if frozen in time, while the natural beauty of the snow-laden scene is dazzling in its photographic precision. The painting references Adam Smith’s economic metaphor of the “invisible hand,” a phrase he coined to describe the economic force that guides the supply and demand of free market capitalism. Tansey’s paintings are usually interwoven with erudite concepts that illustrate his extensive knowledge of philosophy, art history and literature. In this latest series, he conflates the history of economics with awe-inducing portrayals of nature to create a hauntingly beautiful tableau.
Tansey’s paintings possess an unrivaled technical virtuosity that results from the time-consuming process of their creation. His imagery derives from a personal archive of photographs, magazine articles, newspaper clippings and other ephemera that has been compiled over the course of his career, which he then photocopies, often stretching or rotating the images in bizarre combinations. This preliminary collage assists the artist in preparation for his painting, which he typically executes in a single hue. The surface of Tansey’s paintings are like no other—their smooth uniformity lends his figures a lingering, ghostlike quality, as if suspended in amber. This is undoubtedly related to Tansey’s deliberately limited palette, which can evoke the vintage quality of a sepia-toned photograph or in the case of Invisible Hand, an architect’s blueprint.
In Invisible Hand, the skilled and meticulous execution of Tansey’s technique recalls the panoramic landscape paintings of the 19th Century. Much like the work of Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran, the snow-covered mountainside that Tansey depicts is exquisitely detailed in its faithful rendering, bringing to mind the awesome power of the natural world. In the painting’s upper register, a ski trail running down the cliff edge is dwarfed in comparison to the enormity of the mountain’s peak, while a tiny snowboarder near the top of the giant thumb goes careening down the mountain. The giant hand that emerges from the mountainside recalls classical sculpture in its idealized perfection and might allude to the colossal sculptures of Mt. Rushmore or the Statue of Liberty. Cradled within the giant hand, Tansey depicts the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange as it would have appeared in the early 1900s. The tiny figures who stand around the old-fashioned stock tickers are minuscule compared to the majesty of the great, looming mountain that Tansey depicts.
By rendering a colossal hand that cradles the miniature stock market, Tansey references the Scottish philosopher Adam Smith, who outlined the benefits of free market capitalism in his Wealth of Nations. Smith used the phrase “invisible hand” to describe the economic force that guides the supply and demand of the market, and he is a recurring figure in Tansey’s most recent series. Smith also appears in the 2009 painting EC 101 alongside classical economists David Hume and John Stuart Mill. Writing in 2011, the critic Travis Diehl described Invisible Hand and the meaning of Tansey’s recent work: “The hand in ‘Invisible Hand’ (2011) whose fingers emerge from a ski slope to shield a cavernous stock exchange, refers to economist Adam Smith’s famous metaphor but also to the long tradition of hands in art—and to that of the artist himself, who guides the subjective economy of his paintings. Indeed, Tansey’s latest works implicate themselves in the relationship of economics and art. For all their irony, they cannot avoid evoking what for painting was both crisis and boon: the Reagan/Thatcher era, when even for those defending the relevance of their medium, down was down, up was up. (Travis Diehl, “Mark Tansey’s Vertigo,” Blouin Art Info, 15 July 2011; accessed online 4/7/2016 via http://www.blouinartinfo.com/reviews/article/38119-mark-tanseys-vertigo) Invisible Hand, like Tansey’s best work, finds endless allegorical associations that are inspired by the painting’s imagery. As Diehl suggests, the “invisible hand” that Tansey portrays is therefore analogous to the hand of the artist itself, which is especially pertinent given that Tansey’s meticulously-executed, exacting work never betrays the evidence of his own hand. More compelling, however, is the depiction of a sheet of falling ice and snow directly to the left of the stock market scene, which seems to indicate an avalanche taking place. The beautiful cascade of falling snow is breathtaking in its depiction—rendered like some ethereal white waterfall. It recalls the sense of overpowering awe that is felt in the wake of such “acts of God,” whose raw power is breathtaking to behold. Given Tansey’s invocation of Smith’s metaphor, it might even allude to the stock market crash of September 29, 2008.
Invisible Hand belongs to Tansey’s most recent series of paintings that depict enigmatic landscapes rendered in a monochromatic palette of ultramarine blue. While Invisible Hand references a controversial economic model that describes a self-monitoring market system that favors equilibrium, other paintings in the series similarly explore theories of equilibrium and symmetry. Tansey invokes the 2008 book Why Beauty is Truth: A History of Symmetry by the famous mathematician Ian Stewart and the 1996 book At Home in the Universe by Stuart Kaufman. Kaufman’s work delineates “complexity theory,” in which he argues that a deep, natural impulse towards order rather than chaos persists in the universe. Tansey explores these systems of order that attempt to explain the inexplicable, or control the uncontrollable. Throughout his career, he has used the guise of narrative painting to interrogate the systems of thought established through philosophy, art theory, linguistics, and the present series is no exception. A haunting, powerful painting, Invisible Hand invokes the heroic beauty of panoramic landscape in its dreamlike exploration of the systems which guide the uncontrollable nature of human civilization.