Description: Mark Tansey (b. 1949)
signed 'Tansey' (center right); signed again, titled and dated 'Tansey 2003 Push-Pull' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
84 x 108¼ in. (213.4 x 275 cm.)
Painted in 2003.
Exhibited: New York, Gagosian Gallery, Mark Tansey, November-December 2004, p. 34 (illustrated in color).
Museum Kurhaus Kleve and Württembergischer Kunstverein Stuttgart, Mark Tansey, January-July 2005, pp. 40-41 (illustrated in color).
Provenance: Gagosian Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Notes: WORKS FROM THE COLLECTION OF MICHAEL CRICHTON
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In Mark Tansey's monumental 2003 painting Push/Pull, a group of intrepid explorers are boldly crossing the vast expanse of the canvas. One of them is on a small, precarious bridge, held by ropes and supported by her team-mates. In the background, their small boat rests on the calm waters. Yet however calm those waters may seem, all is not as it appears in Tansey's painting. Indeed, the entire composition is a form of treacherous terrain in its own right: in a false reflection that recalls Salvador Dalí's Surreal paintings, the bottom half of the picture, while vaguely echoing the upper segment, in fact presents the Sphinx in a desert landscape. This is an intriguing inversion: Tansey's pictures thrive on tensions, on conflicts, and this is clearly the case in Push/Pull, as is evident from the title itself. While the Sphinx, the inscrutable riddler of yore, towers over its pyramid-strewn Egyptian landscape, contemporary Americans dominate the other half, be it in the form of the explorers themselves, or of the colossal anamorphic figure looming over them.
Tansey's paintings have often been associated with Post-Modernism and Post-Structuralism. In them, he uses a deceptively "realistic" form of painstaking rendering of his motifs in order to grant them a narrative authority. Yet those images, often culled and collaged from the clippings Tansey began to collect as a student, themselves are deliberately problematic, introducing a range of conflicts and questions, be they conceptual or topical. In Push/Pull, the upper and lower halves of the painting appear to represent American travelers in some blasted landscape and the Sphinx and Pyramids of Egypt respectively. In contemporary terms, this introduces controversial subjects such as the American influence on the Middle East and its continued reliance on oil to support a lifestyle of luxury while failing to provide that to the nations providing the fuel. Although completed in 2003, Push/Pull was begun in 2001, and in this context appears to anticipate the tragedy of 9/11, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and their various aftermaths.
As well as political conflicts, cultural conflicts are also invoked in Push/Pull: the vast, deliberately distorted figure in the background is Lizzie Grubman, the celebrity publicist who herself became the source of scandal and accusations when she reversed her Mercedes into a crowd in 2001 - the perfect embodiment of gas-guzzling excess. A court found her guilty of doing this deliberately and indeed heard that she was accused of shouting, "Fuck you, white trash" at the time. Many critics felt that she received a lenient sentence, revealing the iniquities and injustices of the legal system. Tansey has thus introduced a potent symbol of class divides, star status and the vacuity at the heart of contemporary, celebrity-centric culture into Push/Pull. The noble remnants of an ancient civilization are thus starkly contrasted with the decadence of our modern existence.
In Tansey's painting, Grubman features both as the mirage-like figure in the background and as the woman crossing the precipice. Tansey, again using the anamorphic device most famously used by Hans Holbein the Younger in the skull at the bottom of The Ambassadors, has made the bridge from the distorted form of a Mercedes SUV, visible when viewed from an angle. This becomes, then, the vehicle for her traverse, and also the vehicle by which she gained notoriety. In short, it is the vehicle for her apotheosis within the American media, the means by which she has risen and gained recognition, becoming so much more than the tentative pioneer viewed in the centre of Push/Pull. The ancient hierarchies and cosmogonies of Pharaonic Egypt find their own distorted equivalent in the glossy mags and celebrity pages of today, our own flawed and fallible gods striding, elusive and ineffable, in realms usually - bar the odd rage-fuelled DUI incident - distant and detached from everyday life and people.
Does the title in part reflect the paradoxical manner in which Grubman was hoist by her own petard, the push and pull the equal opposing forces at work in her gaining adverse publicity when publicity was precisely her own business? Or does it tackle the wider issues of which the Grubman story was so symptomatic? Certainly, the painting as a whole sets up a deliberate opposition between the celebrity-obsessed United States and contemporary "culture" and the ancient and esteemed, storm-battered statue of the Sphinx. This is accentuated by the presence of the shadow on the underside of the bridge: the silhouette is that of Rodin's famous sculpture of the author Honoré de Balzac.
This double-whammy of Balzac and Rodin in one simple silhouette reinforces the lower half of the picture's status as the more cultured flip side to the gossip-page coin. Yet there is a tension here too: for both sculptor and author alike were concerned with very different notions of the depiction of reality, a concern central to Tansey's work. Where Balzac was celebrated as one of the great inventors of literary realism, granting his various characters an incredibly rounded sense of humanity, of personality, Rodin's stylised sculptures, including the statue of Balzac whose shadow is present here, were often sources of scandal. The tangential presence of Grubman, Balzac and Rodin - celeb, writer and sculptor - within a picture made by Tansey - a painter - allows a clash of disciplines and attitudes, a clash of realisms and realities. "I am not a realist painter," Tansey has declared, expanding:
"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" (Tansey, quoted in A.C. Danto, Mark Tansey: Visions and Revisions, C. Sweet (ed.), New York, 1992, p. 132).
In Push/Pull, there is a vortex in which these realities collide, but it bleeds into the entire fabric of the painting. Within the painted area of the Sphinx, for example, a host of faces are in evidence, including one that resembles a shocked Snow White from the classic Disney film. Like a paranoiac vision, more and more faces and figures reveal themselves within the Sphinx, meaning that the ancient remnant has become a metaphor for subjective interpretations, for the impossibility of 'realist' painting. The Sphinx, according to ancient legend, was the poser of riddles, and indeed embodies riddles within its own abrasions. Tansey even advertises his own participation in this dialogue: for the Sphinx is itself a figure from earlier works such as his 1984 painting, Secret of the Sphinx (Homage to Elihu Vedder) in which, echoing and updating the composition of Vedder's 1863 image, he showed a man with a microphone and recording equipment awaiting the ruined visage's mythical and mystical utterances. Here, Tansey's work appears to have come full circle, with the Spinx returning, embodying yet another enigma, one that is perhaps echoed by Grubman's ambiguous status as publicist and publicity.
The Sphinx-like status of Tansey's own paintings is enhanced by his medium. He often uses a gessoed canvas to which he applies paint, and then removes the wet oils with a variety of implements. This is a process of reduction, rather than creation, recalling a sculptor chiselling away at his block, a precedent set by both Rodin and the ancient Egyptians. The oils themselves result in a monochrome evocative of old photographs, lending Push/Pull an extra authority despite the clear impossibility of the scene before us. Discussing his medium of choice, Tansey has explained:
"One of the most obvious effects of monochrome is its production of a 'seeming' unity. Photographic conventions play the key role here, by establishing a plausible space-and-time framework. This framework becomes the container for whatever cultural, ideological, conceptual, or formal conclusions that might occur within it. In a sense it's a matter of seeing how much force of content the framework can take before its apparent unity breaks down" (Tansey, quoted in A.C. Danto, Mark Tansey: Visions and Revisions, C. Sweet (ed.), New York, 1992, p. 128).