The narrative of Shades is dominated by a compelling allegory: 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 essence of the proposition 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 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 the 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 cited and transcribed by Arthur C. Danto, Visions and Revisions, New York, 1992, p. 132)
Tansey unravels modes of perception and representation, perennially testing the eye and eluding narrative clarity in favor of incredulous wonder. By adhering to the conventions of representational painting, Tansey encourages an instantaneous familiarity that he quickly corrupts, thereby making us aware of our own susceptibility to images. Deceptively legible, Tansey’s paintings offer us the promise of veracity in their naturalistic style, yet by their supernormal mélange of fantastical elements we decode the dream-world of the painter’s mind. Exemplified by the ingenuity of the present work, Tansey is a virtuoso of narrative, culling his themes from a litany of rhetorical sources and filtering them through his distinctly surreal imagination. An extraordinary bibliophile, Tansey draws from various texts—literary, cinematic -- and his paintings evoke an insatiable curiosity that is coupled with unsparing intelligence. Shades maintains a photographic exactitude in its monochromatic resplendence of luscious indigo. 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. Like a black and white photograph, Tansey’s monochrome contours evoke the outmoded and archaic, yet spun through the preposterous tone of deep blue. The hue is as otherworldly as the picture itself, a breathtaking image whose reality is belied by the photographic nature in which it is painted.
The compositional drama is formally underscored by the exaggerated chiaroscuro, and tonal gradations of shadowy blue create an overwhelming atmosphere that lends the work its striking immediacy. Sun pours into the frame through the opening at the right of the canvas, filling the painting with shadows characteristic of Caravaggio’s pioneering investigation of light. Evocative of the surrealist landscapes of Dalí and de Chirico, who melted the space-time continuum by shattering perspective and confusing light and shadow, Tansey’s Shades harnesses a visual power that enraptures the eye and stimulates the mind through foreshortening and optical illusionism. Tansey's method of painting is excruciatingly time sensitive. Beginning with applying a heavily gessoed ground to the surface, layer upon layer of paint is then successively added to build up a rich surface from which Tansey carves and swipes away paint with a variety of tools and implements. Working within the six hour time frame before his paint dries and becomes unpliable, Tansey operates under formidable time constraints, akin to the technique of fresco-painting. Through his additive and reductive method, Tansey takes on the role of draughtsman, painter, and sculptor. His images thus emerge from the monochromatic abyss by means of a constant process of wiping and pulling pigment away in order to render the painstaking details that fill the vast expanse. 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 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; indeed this painting is pure, exhilarating theater.
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