Armed with compelling intellect, inspiring levity, and virtuosic painterly skill, Mark Tansey’s Coastline Measure is a history painting of the highest order. This panoramic picture from 1987 draws us into its cerulean depths, opening a spectacular vista of rich pictorial data that is completely and utterly engrossing. Replete with allegorical resonance, Coastline Measure depicts numerous figures attempting to measure the rocky coastline—an absurd endeavor in the face of thunderous waves dangerously crashing against the cliffs. As the individuals perch perilously on the tips of the coastline, they continue to wield their devices and remain focused on the task at hand, apparently oblivious to the menacing storm threatening their survival.
Coastline Measure maintains a photographic exactitude in its monochromatic resplendence, enrobing the surface of the canvas in a sumptuous wave of luscious indigo. As is the case of all of the most sought after works in Tansey's aesthetic arsenal, Coastline Measure is deliberately monochromatic; he varies the value but not the tone of his colors. Like a black and white photograph, Tansey’s monochrome ultramarine contours evoke the outmoded and archaic, yet spun through the preposterous tone of deep azure. 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. Furthermore, in a subversive gesture of postmodern self-reflexivity, the very subject of Coastline Measure emphasizes the process of looking by depicting figures using observation devices that mimic the camera: “Vision, the remaining, sanctioned sense, unsurprisingly is the subject of several ironic canvases… the entire crew in Coastline Measure, 1987, by means of devices simple and sophisticated and against a fearsome tide, quantify their observations.” (Judi Freeman, “Metaphor and Inquiry in Mark Tansey’s ‘Chain of Solutions,’” in Exh. Cat., Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Mark Tansey, 1993, pp. 35-37)
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 the artifice of cunning images. Though realistic in appearance, the scene is completely contrived. Deceptively legible, Tansey’s paintings offer us the promise of authenticity in their naturalistic style, yet quickly by their supernormal mélange of constituent elements we decode a hyper-realist fantasy. Moreover, Tansey paints his picture in a monochromatic cyan, arresting the photographic image in a single color tone so as to heighten the veracity of the otherwise impossible image. As Arthur C. Danto describes, “The uncanny feeling that the painted image has been caught by what Fox Talbot called ‘the pencil of nature,’ as it were, yields the conviction that what one looks at actually transpired, while Tansey like a wizard rhetorician, can spread his hands out as if to show their emptiness… This appearance of effortlessness conspires with the narrative mode and the style of representational plainness to create a triply underwritten conviction of pictorial candor. The inscribed reality looks visually plausible, as if it were the artist’s good luck to have been there where and when it happened, preserving the instant whose narrative, of course, it is up to us to tell…” (Arthur C. Danto, Mark Tansey: Visions and Revisions, New York, 1992, p. 16)
The compositional drama of Coastline Measure is formally underscored by the exaggerated chiaroscuro. Storms of shadowy cobalt blue envelop the atmospheric force of the painting's amplitude, creating an overwhelming tonal value that lends the work its striking immediacy. As the vigorous waves crash against the cliffs, Tansey paints a scene that clearly takes influence from such masters of the torrential seascape as J.M.W. Turner. Tansey’s Coastline Measure harnesses a resounding visual power that enraptures the eye and stimulates the mind through foreshortening and optical illusionism. In its complex composition and classical subject matter, the tempestuous sea scene appears rooted in a particular period of painting far removed from the contemporary, and yet untangling the individuals buried in the cliffs of Tansey’s painting reveals a completely ahistorical and atemporal narrative. Calm and deliberate, Tansey’s brush expertly captures the details of overlapping perspective and shadows, inspiring pure awe in its overall scope and close-up precision.
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.
Exemplified by the ingenuity of the present work, Tansey is a narrative wunderkind, culling his themes from a litany of rhetorical sources and filtering them through his distinctly surreal imagination. When postmodernist thought gained traction in the 1970s with the pioneers of the Pictures generation—artists such as Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince, and Louise Lawler—art concerned with the mechanics of picture-making and representation intentionally evaded painting. Committed to searching the archives for means of persistently questioning the nature of images, Tansey’s strategy of appropriation within his painting to investigate historical modes of image construction through a highly critical and theoretical lens was increasingly unique. Akin to the surrealism of René Magritte, Tansey prefers to leave his pictures open-ended, achieving at once an accessibility in its figurative quality while opening the disquieting potential for numerous interpretations and persistent rereading. Nowhere more powerfully than in his Coastline Measure does he achieve this piercing effect, one that is coupled with an instantaneous painterly landscape that at its very aesthetic core shimmers with pure, unadulterated beauty.
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