Bathed in a sundry of saturated and mythical blue, Mark Tansey's astonishingly beautiful Shades, 2001, is a visual dissertation on the symbolic concerns that have preoccupied the artist throughout his career. The hue is as otherworldly as the image itself, an impossible image whose reality is belied by the photographic nature in which it is painted. The resultant tableau seduces the viewer into the artist's speculative reenactment, which borrows from several historical sources, all artistically choreographed for heightened visual drama. Tansey's intricately detailed compositions are rife with hidden codas: tiny text, secret symbols, and infinitesimal images which are informed with a greater sense of historiography than any of his contemporaries. A dazzling technician, with a pictorial language that results in achingly beautiful trompe l'oeils, Tansey's Shades informs as much as it suggests and answers as much as it questions.
An extraordinary bibliophile, Tansey draws from various metaphorical and rhetorical sources in composing Shades. The allegory which appears paramount can be traced to one of the most sacred philosophical conversations between Socrates and his brother Glaucon that takes place in Plato's epic Republic. At the crux of the debate, Socrates asks Glaucon to imagine a cave peopled by chained prisoners who believe that the shadows cast by objects and events outside are, in fact, reality. They are trapped and unaware of their own limited perspective. The essential point is that the prisoners in the cave are not seeing reality, but only a shadowy representation of it. The importance of the allegory lies in Plato's belief that there are invisible truths lying under the apparent surface of things which only the most enlightened can grasp. In Tansey's Shades, the attention of the conspiring figures is intent on their rendering of a photogenic drawing that transfers the shape of the cave's opening onto the ground. Only one figure turns to look at the magnificent original source of form – the shaft of light flooding the cave entrance - rather than their projected simulacra. Tansey appears to enjoy this epistemological conundrum throughout the composition: the shadow of the palm frond cast on the cave bears a tenuous ocular resemblance to splayed eyelashes, casting a metaphorical fixed glance on the scene before it. Tansey's fascination with this philosophical dilemma is due largely in part to his own concerns with painting. "I think of the painted picture as an embodiment of the very problem that we face with the notion of '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 all pictures are inherently problematic." (Mark Tansey, as quoted and transcribed by Arthur C. Danto, Visions and Revisions, New York, 1992, p. 132).
The compositional drama is underscored formally by the exaggerated chiaroscuro. This not only references Plato's cave but also the Greek myth of Prometheus—the Titan who stole fire from the gods, gave it to mortals, and was eternally punished. That Tansey here seems to be enjambing the two ancient parables makes little narrative sense but it allows for a sort of aesthetic logic. Knowledge, it seems, can be created even in the dark. "In my work," Tansey once said, "I'm searching for pictorial functions that are based on the idea that the painted picture knows itself to be metaphorical, rhetorical, transformational, and 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." (Ibid).
As is the case of all of the most sought after works in Tansey's aesthetic arsenal, Shades is deliberately monochromatic; he varies the value but not the tone of his colors. The result is a surprisingly sensorial experience. Ancient Paleolithic cave paintings draw their power from plain pictorial language and simple, generalized imagery to make their messages relatable throughout time and continent. They were not just a means of decoration, but a vital means of communication. Tansey also refines his means through chromatic economy while also rendering the scene with extreme evocativeness through this very technique. Within the resplendent blue that enshrouds the cave, five figures squat around a small fire which burns so bright that Tansey represents it as a blinding spotlight of white, negative space. The ground upon which the figures' feet rest is scored in such a way as to make vectors of them which lead to the vanishing point of the female figure. A large feathered palm frond caresses the back of this central figure, casting the most distinct of all the shadows in the composition. These "shades" and projections, in tandem with the sunlight from the outside world, mimic a sort of stage and indeed this painting is pure theater.
Tansey's extraordinary pictorial achievements are made possible by his stunningly seraphic technique. Akin to the complexity of fresco painting, Tansey's method of painting is excruciatingly time sensitive. As the paint will dry in mere hours, Tansey must layer his pigment onto a portion of the surface area on which he can work under the formidable time constraint. His images thus emerge from the monochromatic abyss by means of wiping and pulling pigment away in order to render the painstaking details by means of an arsenal of tools. This reductive process allows Tansey to excavate his images with archeological and photographic precision. According to the artist, "a painting takes a few days to a few weeks depending on the complexity of subject matter. The quick and intense painting process is usually a pleasurable antidote to the preceding months of preparation." (Ibid., p.127).
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