The latest solo exhibition of Nicola Tyson’s work, her eighth with Friedrich Petzel Gallery, saw the London-born New York-based artist stake out new ground, but with mixed results. Displayed on plinths in the adjacent gallery space, a series of diminutive black and white effigies of birds – a commendable first foray into sculpture – formed a soothing counterpoint to the chromatic excesses of Tyson’s more familiar large-scale paintings installed in the main gallery. But even the latter marked a new departure for the artist, at least in their subject matter. Though not unprecedented, paintings featuring more than one character had hitherto been somewhat rare in Tyson’s output. The forlorn protagonist of Figure Creeping (all works 2011) is the exception rather than the rule in this group of eight.
None of the remaining seven ‘figures’ lack a significant other – be it man, tree, beast or, more often than not, something in between. Take Figure with Tree, for instance, in which a tree, its fleshy pink trunk etched against a garish green backdrop, and seemingly crowned with a turban rather than leaves, appears to be assailed by a knob-headed creature with horse-like legs, brandishing shears in lieu of arms. For all their mangled appendages, stunted or outsized limbs and featureless patched faces, the grotesque cast of characters on view can readily be identified as male or female through the outfits and hairdos they sport as much as through their sexual attributes (the hint of a penis between the legs of the tree’s aggressor; a trace of red where the crotch would be in one of the Two Figures Touching; garments cut out so as to reveal breasts in the amorous Couple).
As if to make up for the missing partner – conspicuous by his, her or its absence – the androgynous being in Figure Creeping is balanced out on the right-hand side of the composition by a vertical strip of flesh-coloured pink that breaks with the two-tier backgrounds of flat, solid colour that evoke colour-field painting. In fact, on closer inspection, these planes of seemingly undifferentiated colour reveal traces of brushstrokes animating the surface; their contrasting gem-like hues further attest to Tyson’s gift as a colourist. Contrary to appearances, the artist operates with quite a restricted palette, making for the overall coherence of this particular body of work. Individual colours crop up in ever-new configurations, as it were recycled: a sartorial detail or flourish in one is promoted to the rank of background, and therefore dominant, colour in the next.
Tyson’s distinctive chromatic universe – made of stark juxtapositions of glaring and softer tones, of brilliant colours offset by muted ones – does not always make for pleasant viewing, any more than the outlandish, misshapen creatures who inhabit it. In this, as in her marked predilection for fleshy tones, she has assimilated the lessons of Pablo Picasso and Willem de Kooning, whose ‘women paintings’ escape her otherwise sweeping indictment of ‘that Abstract Expressionism being perpetrated on us by our cousins in the New World’, to quote from her Letter to Bacon. Readings of this and other satirical epistles addressed to her illustrious predecessors, from Francis Bacon to Édouard Manet, were yet another bold new venture for the artist. In turning to literary prose, cast in the satirical mould that informs the comedy of manners at work her paintings, Tyson lays herself bare. Beneath their ebullient tone, these rather breathless but quite engaging letters, in which she takes on in turn some of the artists to whom her work is ritually compared, betray an understandable anxiety of influence. Though hardly anthology pieces, they ring true and give a welcome performative element to an otherwise traditional exhibition format.