While many British artists opt for low-effort irony, Keith Tyson goes for the big issues: the nature of the creative act, the link between agency and chance, the production of knowledge. Or so he claims. But his recent exhibitionrevealed that rather than seriously investigating any of these themes, he is striking a pose.
The “Nature Paintings”series (2005-09) is an ensemble of mesmerizingly glossy enamels on aluminum or mirror. Whirlpools of pigment sweep across the shiny surfaces, raw colors bubbling up as if springing from unknown depths. Made by pouring paints and chemicals onto acid-primed supports, these paintings are said by the artist to escape his control, nature itself being responsible for the final creations (hence the title). If the idea is old-fashioned—among many others, Gustav Metzger and Yves Klein were using natural forces to produce artworks some 50 years ago—it is nonetheless appealing. Yet unlike his predecessors, Tyson doesn’t truly let go. This is particularly visible in the four-panel Nature Painting: Four Elements (Fire) (Water) (Earth) (Air), 2008. With its sweeps of carmine and convoluted cobalt patterns, this large work achieves strikingly literal representations of fire and water, casting strong doubts on the actual part left to chance.
This vexatious sense of disingenuousness ran throughout the exhibition. According to the catalogue, the “Operator Paintings” (2006-09) are “derived from equations constructed using standard mathematical operators.” In concrete terms, the “Operator Paintings” combine representations of everyday objects, such as a chair and bucket, with faux mathematical formulas printed beneath: “((bucket x chair) + (chair x bucket))/r(q)=sin3(q),” for instance. These works may sustain a certain poetics of the absurd, but they struggle to deliver more than the simple pleasure guaranteed by unexpected conjunctions of signs and images.
The weakest work is the latest, a series executed in oil and acrylic on aluminum titled “Cloud Choreography Paintings” (2008-09), for which some attempt is made to demonstrate the subject’s manifold cultural significances. Cloud Choreography: Nine Tributaries (2009) consists of nine skies borrowed from classical paintings and arranged in an Ad Reinhardt-like grid. In Cloud Choreography: Four Decades (2008), fluffy contrails strike through an azure field; a blue-sky image of ironic optimism, it is opposed by the nuclear mushrooms of Cloud Choreography: We Have a Colour TV (2009). “Cloud Choreography and Other Emergent Systems” might have been redeemed by some sense of humor or proportion; its grandiosity obscures the urgent topics it gestures toward but doesn’t touch.
Photo: Keith Tyson: Operator Painting: Functions, 2009, mixed mediums on aluminum, 78 inches square; at Parasol Unit.