Portage draws us into its luminous cerulean depths, opening a spectacular vista of rich pictorial data that is completely engrossing. Calm and deliberate in his brushwork, Tansey captures the details of overlapping perspectives and shadows, inspiring pure awe in the composition’s overall scope and close-up precision. Armed with compelling intellect and inspiring levity, Mark Tansey is both an architect of thought and a visual archaeologist of the most unruly manner. Portage is rife with hidden codes—tiny text, secret symbols, and infinitesimal images form a part of Tansey’s oeuvre, representative of the profound sense of history which informs his work. Charged with intellectual intensity and allusions that captivate and confound viewers, the present work revels in Tansey’s engagement with the basic theoretical concerns of 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” (the artist quoted in Arthur C. Danto, Mark Tansey: Visions and Revisions, New York 1992, p. 132).
At first glance, Portage depicts a relatively straightforward landscape of a roaring stream of water cascading down a serrated rock face. Closer inspection reveals that the canvas expands into a plain of micro-happenings, in which each small subject is blissfully naive to the magnitude of its treacherous surroundings. According to the artist’s intention for this painting to be viewed from all angles, a new narrative is revealed at each orientation. This undercurrent of quirks and visual puns depicting several examples of ‘portage’ include a couple strolling hand in hand, a group of children climbing, a man transporting a canoe overhead, and an assemblage of men lifting a boat below the head of a sphinx carved into the rock face. That the artist has created a compass-like diagram on the reverse of the canvas, with arrows pointing in the four cardinal directions, further alludes to Tansey’s intention and subsequent execution of the profound dynamism within Portage.
The son of an art historian, Tansey benefitted from a upbringing that gifted him with an encyclopedic knowledge of historical and cultural references. One can see in the present work the Renaissance impresario Leonardo da Vinci “when you look at a wall spotted with stains, or with a mixture of stones…you may discover a resemblance to various landscapes, beautified with mountains, river, rocks… or again you may see battles and figures in action; or strange faces and costumes, and an endless variety of objects, which you could reduce to complete and well-drawn forms…like the sound of bells in whose jangle you may find any name or word you choose to imagine” (Leonardo da Vinci quoted in Exh. Cat., New York, Gagosian Gallery, Mark Tansey, 2013, p. 53). Meanwhile, the inclusion of the mythological Egyptian sphinx is a divisive clue to the doom that each narrative scene might come to face. Traditionally, the Sphinx is a merciless creature that kills those who cannot answer its riddle. With each grouping of figures operating in close proximity to the waters’ perilous edge, Tansey teases the viewer by nodding to the possibility of their implicit fate.
As revealed in Portage, Tansey unravels modes of perception and representation to perennially test the eye and elude narrative clarity in favor of incredulous wonder. Tansey encourages an instantaneous familiarity that he quickly corrupts, thereby making us aware of our own susceptibility to images. The monochrome palette of Portage challenges our ability to tease out each scene within the composition. Yet, it is for this reason that Tansey opts to paint in this way; “In the beginning I was attracted to monochrome—black and white—because everything I liked was in it, from reproductions of Michelangelo to scientific illustrations to Life magazine photos. Because this simple but versatile syntax was shared by art, fiction and photographic reality, it made possible another level of pictorial fiction, where aspects of each could commune.” (the artist quoted in Arthur C. Danto, Mark Tansey: Visions and Revisions, New York 1992, p. 128). By implementing a monochrome palette, Tansey is able to manipulate the conventions of figurative painting at greater ease. As one of the earliest examples of Tansey’s adoption of monochrome blue, Portage endures as a highly significant work symbolizing a formal and conceptual turning point in Tansey’s career.
In conjunction with his time studying themes of appropriation, collage, and the metaphysical—an investigation which he first explored via his MFA in Painting at Hunter College, New York—Mark Tansey has cemented a signature style dependent on experimentation. A personal collection of paraphernalia is key to Tansey’s creative process. Collected throughout his life, from a variety of sources, Tansey’s personal bank of articles include magazine clippings, newspapers, journals, personal photographs, and indiscriminate materials, an endless source of inspiration and data from which to montage, scale, and malleate into a considered work of art. This is evident in Portage, where aggrandized landscape intertwines with concealed disjointed scenes, rendering a painting that is about the idea of making a painting itself. Tansey presents us with a sort of stage; indeed, this painting is pure, exhilarating theater—an unattested masterpiece within his oeuvre.
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