Natural History

Mark Tansey: The Conversation

Direct figurative representation in the arts has been heavily criticized within recent years and accordingly it has been neglected since it has not been possible to construct a new reason for it. Through the last decades, traditional concepts of man have been restored and used in an unchanged form whenever you have ventured into the domain of representational art. When figurative representation was used again, it was on the basis of the same argument - that now once again a breeding ground for a whole and natural concept of the world had been provided for. Thus artists who did not believe in a return to traditional concepts of man have virtually banned direct representation which could only be employed by making a caricature of it.
However, the way certain artists relate to the world is changing. This is clearly seen in the works at for instance Documenta 8 in Kassel in 1987. Contrary to the practice of the last 10 or 20 years they do not try to fragment the picture in order to try these fragments on different models of thought and society to create a thin but very comprehensive picture which like a meta-explanation hovers above the separate categories and models that have shaded them.
The strategy is now a different one. The game has become more open. The whole spectrum ranging from the geometric to the figurative is usable; any method or picture or geometric form can be used in working with sculpture or painting in so far that the center of attention of the works has moved to their construction. Thus one cannot say that the work is necessariliy figurative, but what is more interesting is that this different observation permeates works of a very different character.
This strategy gives you the opportunity to reintroduce representation as one strategy amongst many others without replaying old traditions and without figuration, a gesture of one of the persons on the picture, or the main character’s facial expression or posture, becoming crucial for the expression of the picture. Crucial, however, is the system - the order or the geometry - of which the picture is an organization and incarnation. The important thing is not that figurative elements can be used again. More interesting, however, is the relationship between reality and the work of art that these things show. When in the following passages I stress the figurative in the arts, it is to further the clarity of the case even if the same problematics can be found in artists that do not deal with representation.
Contrary to modernism, which thought that truth could be found through immediate sensory perceptions, there is today a melancholy relationship between direct perception and the delay which constitutes our knowledge. An understanding of perception can only be reached in retrospect through careful reconstruction while immediate perception lacks understanding and explanation.Thus one does not understand things intutively - reason and feeling do not converge in an innermost experience. By understanding I mean categorization, analysis, and breadth of view. In the last instance distance. A distance between perception, the artist and the work of art is important. The picture thus gives no explanation but produces a consequence. Accordingly, in the work of art there is a past, a sort of sedimented time, a fossil.
The relationship which makes it possible to subsume and thus to emancipate things and concepts and use them in the work of art has popped up in the intersection between the horizontal movement of knowledge and the vertical fatality of the picture.It is the place where the picture instead of being explanatory becomes pure figure and where the picture can no longer carry its own explanation but turns over and becomes a surface, a pattern. In this intersection the fossilized past (the origin of the work) and a prospective talk is divided by the semiotic geology of the picture. The picture is emptied of explanations. It is actually carried beyond explanation and knowledge by explanation and knowledge itself and in a simple way shows a matter in time and space - like an immanent geometry - like when the doctor tries to explain an illness by showing an image which most of all looks like a net undershirt or a cut through a geological deposit. In this case he cannot refer to the figurative content of the picture but has to lean on the order in the local geometry where the illness manifests itself.
When the picture is emancipated from its explanatory relations of its own origin, its own background, it goes over to another state of naturalness.Thus it ceases to refer back to its own natural state or to the number of processes which constitute its origin. A certain irresponsibility of the picture takes place and instead of being faithful to its origin it continuously produces new images in a continuous scramble of concepts. The coupling of these concepts and images which are produced is the only thing which remains the same. This very local circulation is not changed but in it local state of organization makes sure that the way in which this scramble takes place is the same.
Disjunctive Space
At Documenta 8 in Kassel several artists showed a totally different concept of the picture than hitherto seen. Several things were conspicious: partly the enormous power of the pictures as pictures, partly the big number of parallel stories they were able to contain. Each single work of art formed the meeting ground or space of a vast number of local orders, places which in complicated patterns that if not quite forming relations to each other certainly touched upon each other. It was clear that even if in several cases these were figurative works of art they did not represent whole figurations - as if they said, „ Ok, we are very well aware that medicine, psychology, and sociology and all the other categories of knowledge have smashed the unity of the figure but for a short while let us remain on the surface of things without delving into the soul with psychology, into the cells with medicine, and into social relations with sociology.“ This does not indicate oblivion but much more that you consciously remember and relate to this split and on the background of it you construct a „phantom totality“, a totality that can only be maintained locally and which may only be a shell.
What then is capable of making sculpture coherent - to keep all these different rooms together and which at the same time can freeze the reception of the work at the same point? Part of the answer may lie in the touch between the most heterogeneous stories the works show, which is an attempt at conquering space and cover space with meaning. In its totality the work cannot be ascribed to just one gaze, one vanishing point. No total space is opened up to our eyes. Instead a large number of smaller spaces are opened and which in their contact with each other articulate place - do the various parts of the picture gaze at each other and do their gazes criss-cross through the work? - and bring to mind all the stories and categories that constructed it. We all know how difficult it is to catch the eyes of a cock-eyed person. One cannot help having the strange feeling that the smile which is directed towards you at the same time is intended for some one else right behind you. These works of art behave likewise. It is impossible to catch the main gaze of the work.
Is it possible to show effects, things, experiences and maintain that you are able to see them without the layers of conventional meaning and references to other things - without the distance of systems, consciousness, history, and imagination? Maybe sculpture or painting are able to show this?
Or maybe the works are accessible to a simultaneous reading from all these places at the same time because things, ideas, etc. only make sense the moment they manifest themselves at a local level - in a space you can perceive directly? Thus things and concepts do not make sense by referring to a defining idea that will guarantee and bring into aspect the relations and stories of the picture but instead by showing a pattern of parallel, local happenings: The world turned upside down. Geometry is defined by space and place and not the other way round, which is most often the case. Here we hit upon a natural history, the history that moves ahead (writes ahead) at eye level or which at eye level makes abstract matters possible.
Disjunctive space or the geometry it produces is not just valid to one kind of figurative art. The thoughts I air here stress a very close connexion between the various artistic categories. The extremities most likely are formed by on the one hand the recent representatives of figurative painting that have come up within recent years (Mark Tansey, for instance) and pure geometric sculpture and painting on the other (Julian Opie and Sherrie Levine, for instance) - and yet their common background is new geometry. It may very well be new geometry (or rather: a different look upon geometry) that is the most interesting in the new ambitions.
Geometry of things do not freeze the various points; neither in the literal sense nor in the matters concerning the meanings out of which the picture states its point. On the contrary, they are animated in a kind of play of memory that takes place below the surface of the picture. Thus there is a turning back to having experience manifest itself in geometry so that experience and geometry are each other’s prerequisites. This produces an immanent geometry whose starting point is nothing else but this very matter - the only thing it can form an opinion about - a geometry of space.
If we concede that time and space are out of joint and out of track with itself, we will see a number of simultaneous spaces organized at random instead of a rounded and well-defined space consisting of a vanishing point, a stable ground, and chronological time as a succession of well-defined spaces. This raises a problem concerning which time and space the work of art constructs or which time and space the work of art is caught up in. Due to the simultaneity of the various spaces cracks will arise, cracks in sculpture or painting.
What do we see when we look through a crack? Maybe nothing else than into an endlessly deep space, which can be compared to going by train or by car and passing two houses close to each other. In a flash, while passing by, you look into the narrow opening between the two houses. The actions that may take place in this gap and that we catch a glimpse of are arbitrary and from our immediate point of view they have no inherent meaning since we pass them i an instant. As a matter of fact you become aware of nothing else than having looked into this space - space mirrors your gaze, nothing else.
This may very well be the gaze you encounter by looking through the crack of the sculpture. One sees oneself in a Velasquezian feedback - a snappy animation of a totally static situation. The strange thing, however, is that precisely the actions we observed in a glimpse and that meant nothing to us nevertheless become significant because they occassioned the mirroring of the gaze. Did they become significant because of the gaze or the other way round?
There may be a narrow but yet very deep space between the picture and the connotations of the picture. The „natural“ conditions of the work and the work itself can be compared to two circles that are placed opposite to one another and extremely close to a point - the point of construction.The work itself as well as its conditions are thus equally distant on either side from the point at which the entire articulation of the work takes place. That is why you cannot discover nature through the work. Either you go to nature herself, or you go to the second nature of the work.
While looking at a picture the nature of the beholder and the second nature of the work merge at this very point - the only point where articulation can take place and where the gaze of the work and the beholder confront like two circles that touch upon each other. In the beginning it is nothing but a gaze but later on reception produces meaning and texture out of the conditions of the double gaze. Thus there is no return to the concept that artworks mirror the interesting life of the artist, the nature of which can no less be traced than the external nature they sometimes obviously refer to.
Mark Tansey: The Conversation
The infant beams at the parent
The parent rebeams at its offspring
Ezra Pound: Moeurs Contemporaines
On the far side of the wall there is a heavy wind; on the near side no wind at all. The reflection of the pool belatedly shows that he is pouring two drinks: one for himself, one for another. Switched back to a point before the reflections of the water have come into sight and pictured the action but after and while the wind is shaking the trees outside the garden wall, they start a conversation or they resume it from a time before the wind started blowing, or they think about what needs to be added when once they have started sipping their drinks. Inserted between all these movements and tableaus are a number of breaks, vacuums grasped by the wind, in the water, in the movements of the trees. Yet momentarily there is still time to be direct - between the reflections in the pool and the shaking of the wind, between the canvas and what shows to be a thin layer of Prussian blue that makes the scene glue together - time to see things for the first time. This space is stretched out between several points: The wind, the calm, the water, and the wall which produce a geometry of waste: the drink, the conversation, and the persons. Or did these things as a matter of fact occassion the situation? Did these simple constituents in reality construct a situation: a geometry between the two persons that the surroundings have to answer in a belated or extended space? Stretched in time, the surroundings simultaneously grasp and animate the static situation and - through the water in the pool and its even movements - add a kind of reflexive depth to the tableaux. Thus the picture has no inherent meaning: A garden, a conversation over a couple of drinks at the side of the pool in the shade of the trees on the other side of the garden wall. Instead it forms and maintains a system of figures that fixate each other, answer each other and in certain cases mirror each other.
There is a certain likeness between Tansey’s The Conversation and Velasquez’s picture Las Meninas in the way they construct a space where many different times are present at once. In Velasquez’s picture there is a constant interchange - like the play in Tansey’s pool - between the painter’s observation and mirroring of the beholders: the absent monarch, our observation of the painter through the gaze of the monarch and the persons around him who in turn look back at us, and the observation of the monarch’s portrait (ours?) vaguely visible in the pane at the far end of the picture.

All these systems observing each other animate an otherwise completely static picture - just like in Tansey’s picture where displaced spaces arise in the same figure through a direct reflection in the somewhat unquiet water in the pool and repeated at another scale in the structure of the picture. Las Meninas does not yield depth in the common sense of the word if by depth you mean explanation or ponderousness but instead creates a variation, a shading of light that actually enlights the coherence of the picture without finalizing it.
Third dimension: depth occurs in a recurrent oscillation between the expressionless being of the painting and the slow becoming of the reference. The depth that arises or rather is found out is not the depth of heightened insight or of „I-see-experiences“ but a qualitative density of experience. This shows very much in the fact that Tansey’s painting is so thinly painted that a close reading would not reveal more details of the story - not unlike the television picture which at closer examination disolves in crackling lines of light.
This low degree of optic dissolution thus hinders that the principle of the painting is lost in a number of separate experiences: space remains thin as paper as at first sight. This „superficiality“ prevents the picture from becoming nature or being where the beholder can embark on a journey of discovery. The picture is maintained as a language and the animation I spoke about earlier endows the linguistic statement with a touch of nature with her change and details. To conclude: What at first glance is a figurative painting of a natural and experienced place proves to be a formal construction of a linguistic place (the place of a second nature). Due to the displacement of direct representation to apparently direct representation, any concept, any thing or any occurrence become usable in the artist’s work.
However, it is important for the construction of place which pictures maintain or produce it because there is a tying together of the above-mentioned geometry and the picture that shows on the surface. In this figurative or structural content you will find references, a pictoral memory - a fossilized communication (conversation) with for instance other art works.

The constallation of the figures do not point at a simple middle point, a center removed from the beholder. On the contrary, the figuration points from its own center towards the surface of the picture or the sculpture, there to meet with the gaze of the beholder. There is an openness in relation to the picture. One choses one’s own view point, one’s own degree on the circle of the work along whose radius you want to attack it. The work mimes and lures by showing you this disjunctive space with its various entrances which separately complete and exclude one another.
It cannot be interesting to try to recreate a natural unity. Only artificiality and structure make it possible for art to say something about the other: the unstructured and the chaotic (in so far that the unstructured and the chaotic only designate a countless number of processes). Trying to reestablish this naturalness would cancel the very distance between art and the world which is a necessary condition for articulation, that is to move away from the exposed position where play constitutes itself and thus is open to an audience that works along, thinks along.
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Quite often you would see him squatting next to an anthill and with a sort of wide-angled gaze he would behold the stocastic movements of the ants or he would concentrate on a stone which in a way of its own showed the movements of the land. Any fixation of the picture in an attempt to maintain the explanation or the result (If at all a result like that is to be found. When, for instance, is the placement of the ants in the hill optimum, or how in one’s head contain a picture, a gigantic parallelogram of the forces of nature, as to why precisely this type of granite is to be found in the Bay of Æbeltoft and not in northern Sweden where the rest can be found) would necessarily amputate the understanding of surface that he, who was without a fix-point, experienced by keeping the picture afloat in a pattern of change that these natural occurrences had sprung from.
In the movements of the ants one could see an almost thermo-dynamic principle: a saturation of energy.

Article in the newspaper Information, January 1988