Nicola Tyson’s most recent show came with an epigraph, declaimed by the press release: imagination I hold to be the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception. . . . A repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.” Thus Tyson’s twelve new paintings, which purport to plumb the depths of “the imagination and the unconscious,” were brought under the Romantic sign of the lines’ author, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. This reference deftly marks out Tyson’s ambitions here, but it’s only the beginning of the hunt for her sources and stylistic influences. Ubiquitous in discussions of Tyson’s “psycho-figuration” are litanies of her sundry appropriations. Here one might note an indebtedness to Francis Bacon’s flayed subjects; there a self-conscious nod to Hans Bellmer’s fetishistic dolls, or Hannah Hoch’s riotous collages, or Egon Schiele’s raw draftsmanship, or Cindy Sherman’s constructions of malleable identities.
Tyson’s paintings, which often resemble the results of a one-player game of cadavre exquis, admit to such pillagings without being delimited by them. The artist’s Pop-surreal forms present bodies as libidinous portents that only tenuously come together, like textbook illustrations of the mirror stage of infant development. As amalgams of allusion and technique they would strain under their own ponderousness were it not for Tyson’s cheekily punchy colors (often forming near-monochromatic single- or double-hued grounds of unspecific place and allusion) and perverse genetic mutations. In such works as Full Length (all works 2005), a woman’s anatomy is a campy, hyperbolically rotund form, mutating the convention of the full-length portrait into a topsy-turvy caricature. Others, such as Nude, torque physiognomy so fully as to render it abstract: a breastlike protrusion might also be a chin, and the whole form a spindly, wafer-thin phallus. Then there is Twist, a pliable wishbone, legs swiveled and impossibly contorted and crowned by a hair-covered skull, a tangled mask obfuscating the figure’s identity.
Tyson’s are bodies not so much becoming animal—although there are signs of emergent wings (or are they breasts too?) in Pointers—but something alien or mineral (witness Landscape Contemplating Itself’s craggy, headlike formations). They are often androgynous, as in Bearded Artist, which shows the “artist” in aggregate profile. A passage of deep blue paint covers the cheek while the merest suggestion of an eye gives way to dense brown fur, leaving the nose and forehead to decompose into permutations of acrid pink. The image suggests a kind of violence done to the form. Even so, it is unclear whether such veils might not be defensive in their covering, armoring as much as defacing that which they overlie. As ciphers for projection and disavowal, Tyson’s paintings raise specters of scopic-desire together with autoeroticism, displacing and confounding the very term—much less the site—of otherness in the process.
Writing of his own dolls, Bellmer averred: “The anagram is the key to all my work.” It followed that “the body is like a sentence that invites us to rearrange it.” In Compulsive Beauty, Hal Foster suggests that Bellmer’s shifting of desire thus “doubles back, turns in, as if to capture the object, to make, unmake, and remake its image again and again.” At the risk of adding yet another source to Tyson’s ever- spiraling constellation, this sure seems apt.
— Suzanne Hudson