The Marriage of Art and Epistemology
Mark Tansey works
in his New York studio from a "wheel of language" before he
translates his ideas onto canvas.
A well-known New York City artist, Mark Tansey
illustrates the power of art to communicate. He works from both hemispheres of
the brain, involving the viewer in his work by incorporating art history,
science, math, geography, literature, rhetoric, logic, and even illogic onto
his canvas. Charged with denotative and connotative meaning and framed
by rich metaphor, his work makes powerful and sometimes surprising statements.
As the artist, he is the first cause, the one who transforms his questions and
preconceived ideas into an image. The viewer must then deductively and
inductively translate that effect.
Tansey uses structuralism and poststructuralist thought
as well as catastrophe, chaos, and complexity theory to create paintings that
please the eye while provoking the mind. His work incorporates thinkers
ranging from Plato, Kant, and Hegel to Merleau-Ponty, Derrida, and de Man, a
complexity that makes his work invaluable for the study of Theory of Knowledge
teachers and students.
Below you will find representative samples of Tansey's work. Form
groups of five and study one. (group or teacher choice). Ask
yourself such questions as "What should the title be?"
is the theme of the painting?" After staring at the painting for a few
minutes, try to decipher, "What is unusual that I didn't notice at first?" Try turning
the painting upside down and looking closely at background detail. Tansey is
notorious for slipping in illogical details
that stimulate thought. Eventually ask yourself" how
do the parts interrelate to create the whole?" Synthesize your
observations as a group and in about twenty minutes present your insights to the general class.
For a detailed PDF interpretation
of the above works and others click here.
teachers or students who wish to study Tansey's work displayed on the web, click
on the following link:
San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1993.
Tansey: Visions and Revisions, New York: Abrams, Inc., 1992.
Picture in Question : Mark Tansey and the Ends of Representation
Mark Tansey - On realism and
Mark Tansey: Visions and Revisions, by Arthur C.
I am not a realist painter. In the nineteenth
century, photography co-opted the traditional function of realist
painters, which was to make faithful renditions of "reality." Then the
realist project was taken over by Modernist abstraction, as later
evidenced in the title of Hans Hofmann's book Search for the Real.
Minimalism tried to eliminate the gap between the artwork and the real.
After that, the project itself dematerialized. But the problem for
representation is to find the other functions beside capturing the real.
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.
I think of the painted picture as an embodiment
of the very problem that we face with the notion "reality." The problem or
question is, which reality? In a painted picture, is it the depicted
reality, or the reality of the picture plane, or the multidimensional
reality the artist and viewer exist in? That all three are involved points
to the fact that pictures are inherently problematic. This problem is not
one that can or ought to be eradicated by reductionist or purist
solutions. We know that to successfully achieve the real is to destroy the
medium; there is more to be achieved by using it than through its
Mark Tansey - On pictorial content:
In the late 1970s, what was particularly attractive
about pictorial representation was that one faced an opening and extending
realm of content rather than dematerialization, endgames, and prolonged
swan songs. Difficulties lay in the long established and increasingly
critical isolation of subject matter from art practice. Critical discourse
and art education had restricted the notion of content to two pockets
coalescing around formal and conceptual poles. To speak about subject
matter in a picture simply was not done.
My feeling was that there was no longer any
justification for these restrictions. Pictures should be able to function
across the fullest range of content. The conceptual should be able to
mingle with the formal and subject matter should enjoy intimate relations
Mark Tansey - The notion of the crossroads:
By contrast to the flat, static, formal model for
painting on one hand and conceptualism on the other, I found it useful to
think in terms of a structurally dynamic model for pictorial content that
could include both models as well as subject matter. The notion of a
crossroads or an intersection of visible and invisible trajectories
offered the most vital metaphor for a picture. It accommodates the fact
that pictorial content is mostly invisible (that is, embodied in
preconceptions that are conceptual, cultural, temporal, etc.). There is
really very little that is visible in the format of a picture. The value
of thinking in terms of a crossroads or pictorial intersection is that if
not all that much is visible, then what little there is ought to involve
vital trajectories and points of collision and encounter between a variety
of cultural, formal, or figural systems.
Mark Tansey - On rift and resonance:
In my earlier work I was trying to learn how to
bring meaning to the image, and was having difficulty activating the
figure and image as a whole.
eight methods of bringing about the "crisis of the object isolation,
modification, hybridization, scale change, accidental encounters, double
image puns, paradox, double viewpoints in one came as a revelation. It
made it apparent to me that crises and conflicts were results of
oppositions and contradictions and these were what was necessary to
activate or motivate a picture.
Magritte's work also led me to wonder if crisis
could take place on other levels of content, more quietly, internally,
more plausibly. Could a conventional picture include many less apparent
crisesthe way everyday life does without the use of overt surrealistic
devices? Iconograph I was an experiment, a sort of Levi Strauss myth
structure grid for crossing artificial/natural oppositions. For example,
instead of Magritte's overt hybridization of a bottle/carrot [L'explication,
1954; Private Collection], I found that a potted plant offered a plausible
and quiet crisis between artifice and nature.
In my later work, the idea of crisis was tempered
and extended to rift and resonance. For instance, a picture might be
decoded by distinguishing rifts (contradictions, discrepancies,
implausibilities) from resonance (plausible elements, structural
similarities, shared characteristics, verifications). In fact the notion
of rift and resonance is fundamental to the picture constructing process
as well. Take, for example, White on White. The monochrome lateral washes
of paint suggest (resonate) with photographic plausibility both snowstorm
and sandstorm and, as monochrome does not verify heat or cold, the unity
of space is maintained. The unified space affirms the proximity of the
Bedouins and Inuits, but their identities, their dress, modes of
transportation (huskies and camels) suggest they exist in different
climates, and the evidence of the windblown fur and clothing attests to
winds blowing in opposite directions. If this evidence is to be affirmed,
there would be an invisible rift down the center of the picture, where
distant continents collide. Furthermore, the Inuits and Bedouins may be
trying to determine exactly where the invisible rift lies.
Mark Tansey - On the value of illustration:
If in paintings there have been problems in linking
image and idea, one key may be found buried deep in the practice of
illustration. Illustration, having been banished from high art as
commercial and slavish to an assigned message, nevertheless is where art
begins. The only significant difference that I can find at this point
between illustration and art is that the former traditionally involves
doing someone else's idea rather than one's own. But of particular value
in good illustration is the function of embedding the idea in the image.
It's common practice in contemporary art to rely heavily on critical
supplements to provide the conceptual content. But in illustration, the
critical content and image can be structured toget er metaphorically. This
involves the invention or search for a new metaphoric structure that acts
as a transformational link between the idea and image. For instance,
reflection, as metaphoric structure, can link the idea of equivalence of
opposites to an image where an object and its reflection are
interchangeable. Mont Sainte Victoire is an example of this.
Another value of illustration is its
hyperfictional capacity. Because it is rhetorically out front, it has
great latitude of reference and freedom to extend or condense space and
time. It is not paralyzed with guilt about the impurities of reference or
of metaphor. On the contrary, new metaphoric relations are its substance
and aesthetic vehicle. It's at the door of metaphor that illustration
transforms into "metaphoric redescription." Metaphoric redescription
(Richard Rorty's term) is a function that is becoming increasingly
interesting in light of the inadequacies of the term "representation," in
that pictures don't actually represent anything.
Mark Tansey - On the role of drawing:
My work is fundamentally drawing. Everything in my
practice is an extension, elaboration, or enhancement of drawing. Despite
my prolonged focus on a variety of reproductive processes, with no other
visual medium can I achieve such complexity with such simple means.
Mark Tansey - Rethinking representation:
More often than not, the critical response to
painted representation labels it nostalgic or retrograde. often this is
appropriate. But there are other dimensions to this response. One is that
behind the label nostalgic (or retrograde) is the valorizing of a narrow
sense of the present. The word Postmodern in its most obvious sense is a
temporal designation. If Postmodern practice is attempting to break from
Modernism, why hasn't the notion of the narrow present been questioned? Is
there a temporal chauvinism here that makes it possible for art discourse
to ignore all other structures of time (cultural, biological, geological,
physiological, cosmological, etc.)? If one can get beyond the
prohibitionary reflex action, it might be possible to look more closely at
the content of representational or other modes of art to see the degree to
which they are sensitive and accountable to other structures of time. In
this way specific artworks can create the rupture that the larger critical
discourse seems to be resisting.
Given that the painted picture is a declassified
medium (in Marshall McLuhan's sense a medium that is no longer the
dominant conduit or voice of power, unlike television or film) it can take
on new functions. One of these can be as analogue to other
representational media in understanding the limits and sensitivities of
one as it relates to those of another. We can use the painted picture as a
way of studying its own modes of references, its ranges of sensitivity and
insensitivity, its deceptions, by way of offering insights into the
analogous functions of for example, film, photography, and television.
I'd like to get a sense of the painted picture as
a medium vital in its free range of reference and content. This is not to
celebrate indiscrimination, but on the contrary, to make it possible to
develop pictorial articulation involving a variety of syntaxes that would
be interconnected and accountable rather than autonomous or
At this point, it is apparent from
on that the separation of abstraction from representation from
conceptualism is no longer compelling or convincing. Each are portions of
an expanded notion of content that can be interfaced, emphasized, or
deemphasized according to an artist's interests. The unique value of any
artwork depends on how new metaphoric relations are structured within it.
But given this expanded content, the area that is
as yet least explored and most in need of rethinking is the realm of
representation. In contemporary art practice, notions of narrative,
temporality, subject matter, illustration, and metaphor still remain
simplistic and ill informed.
This is not to recast representation as though it
were again in exile. It's not as though art discourse is moving away from
representation, or that textual criticality is situated hierarchically
against or outside it. They are also forms of representation. What we have
is a dialogue where the critique of one representation is by another. Art
discourse is the clash of representations.
Mark Tansey: Visions and Revisions, by Arthur C.