“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.”
(Mark Tansey in an interview from, Mark Tansey: Visions and Revisions, New York, 1992, p. 132)
Examining representational expression through a postmodern lens, Mark Tansey’s dense, layered paintings marked a radical departure from the prevalent styles of abstract and conceptual art of the late 1970s. Executed in 1987, Veil is a momentous example of Tansey’s large scale monochromatic paintings, a body of work originating in the early 1980s which has become the artist’s signature style. Expertly rendered, Tansey’s fictive narratives draw upon a range of sources spanning art history, critical theory and philosophy, forming the conceptual framework around which he bases his images. In Veil, Tansey forms a dramatic tableaux vivant, carefully staging his figures in a style reminiscent of the great 19th Century Old Master painters such as Théodore Géricault. Disrobed figures materialize from the darkened abyss, entangled in an exquisitely composed arrangement posed against the dense, turquoise blue backdrop.
Central to Tansey’s oeuvre is the role of pictorial representation in modern day painting on a monumental scale. He creates paintings which envelop the viewer in intricate, carefully constructed scenes rooted in everyday or historical settings. Through these landscape and interior scenes Tansey draws in the viewer. At first glance these scenes appear uncannily familiar, a result of Tansey’s use of appropriated photographic imagery in developing the compositions for his pictures. Derived from an extensive archive of carefully catalogued photographic images, which he initiated while a graduate student at Hunter College in the late 1970s, Tansey’s paintings incorporate clippings from newspapers, books and magazines. Combined with his own photographic studies, Tansey crops, manipulates and collages the imagery to create studies for his monumental paintings. These collages are then photocopied, unifying the seemingly disparate elements into a single coherent composition. Through the use of the photocopier Tansey in effect “rephotographs” his studies, constructing his own virtual reality from his found imagery.
To translate these studies into paint, Tansey begins by applying a heavily gessoed ground to the surface. Layer upon layer of paint are successively applied to the canvas to build up a rich surface upon which he carves and swipes away paint with a variety of tools and implements. Through his additive and reductive method he takes on the role of draughtsman, painter and sculptor throughout his creative process. Carefully manipulating the paint, Tansey's method is similar to Fresco painting, working within the six hour time frame after which point the paint will dry and become unworkable.
The subdued palette becomes an exploration of expression within the confines of the single color of pigment. Tonal values and shading construct the image, as light and texture take on heightened importance. Heavily layered, the dark, intense turquoise paint possesses all the depth and intensity of black, while thinner layers of paint command a lightness and transparency.
A central theme in Veil is Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, from the great Socratic Dialogue The Republic, an allegory about human perception and the notion of true reality. In the story, Socrates tells the fable of a group of prisoners imprisoned in an underground cave. Lit only by a fire from behind, the prisoners are chained facing a wall. Unable to move, they watch as shadows are projected onto the cave wall by the fire. For the prisoners these shadows come to constitute their vision of reality.
In Veil, Tansey’s figures suffer from similar delusion. The title of the painting alludes to the symbol of the veil, a piece of clothing whose purpose is to hide and protect. The veil also functions as a method of concealment and disguise, masking the figures from the truth. A central component of Veil is a magnificent stage curtain, which slices through the pictorial plane. Opened, it bathes the figures in an intense swathe of light, much like the liberated prisoner staring into the fire. Writhing and contorted, the figures crawl on the floor, shielding their eyes from the light. The image presents a paradox – are the figures gazing out into reality and achieving enlightenment, or are they blinded in pain by the searing light of truth?