In addition to this political struggle, cultural blemishes are also referenced in Study for Push/Pull: the wide face of a woman in the background of the upper portion is Lizzie Grubman, a celebrity publicist who became the source of controversy when she reversed her Mercedes SUV into a crowd in 2001. Once again the figure of the Sphinx is starkly juxtaposed, this time as an archetype of ancient civilization contrasting a contemporary symbol of celebrity culture and excess. Tansey establishes a dialectic between competing understandings of cultures; one archaic and revered, the other rooted in the short attention span and thirst for controversy that defines contemporary America. Tansey variously references Hans Holbein the Younger’s The Ambassadors in his skewed rendering of Grubman’s SUV which echoes the depiction of the skull in the former work, as well as the silhouette of Rodin's sculpture of the author Honoré de Balzac as a shadow under the bridge, further complicating the narrative of the painting.
Underlying all of these references and hidden visual clues is the formal mastery of Tansey that marks him as one of the preeminent painters of our time. His compositional drama is formally underscored by the intense use of chiaroscuro and tonal gradations of shadowy azure blue. These striking visual elements create an overwhelming atmosphere that lends the work its striking immediacy. Evocative of the surrealist landscapes of Salvador Dalí and Giorgio de Chirico, who melted the space-time continuum by shattering perspective and confusing light and shadow, Tansey’s Study for Push/Pull harnesses a visual power that enraptures the eye and stimulates the mind through foreshortening and optical illusion.
The artist’s method of painting is excruciatingly time sensitive. Beginning by 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.
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