Saturday, 13 June 2009

Nicola Tyson

Figure With Arm Extended 2004
Oil on Canvas

Sadie Coles HQ, London
February 2005

I have seen this painting twice now, once at Sadie Coles in 2004 and again at Frieze in 2005. It is an abstraction of a female (?) figure with atrophied arms leaning forwards. The figure is on left hand side of the canvas, the background of which is an abstract plane with no depth. There is no discernible face but the head thrusts forwards from the shoulders, and it is conceivable that the figure is in motion, perhaps dancing.

I don’t know the source of the image, but I am guessing that it is from a drawing from a photo – possibly of herself. The shape of the figure looks like it has been drawn in outline and then “filled” in. The fact that the feet are cropped by the bottom of the canvas, also suggests that she has used a photographic source. If it is from a photograph of a figure in motion, then the “stumpy” limbs are a translation of the photographic blur. Alternatively it could be a photograph that has been manipulated in Photoshop. A filter such as “paint daubs”, would give a smoothing effect to all features, blanking the face and atrophying the limbs.

The expressive brushwork leaves thin covering of paint with thick ropes of paint along edge of mark. The ochre/brown ground colour is painted over dark a under-painting which Tyson allows to show through in places, breaking up the surface. The figure is wearing a track suit of brown, cream and green and although the under-painting of the clothing is predominantly red, other colours are present. Again the brushwork is loose and sparse allowing the under-painting to show through. The face is pink with a small white triangle that could signify the nose. The way the figure has definite bulk and volume against the flat ground reminds me of the work of Francis Bacon.

I would describe her figuration as hermetic; the deliberate use of exceedingly obscure, convoluted, or esoteric literary or graphical symbolism to carry a personal meaning that the viewer cannot discern. Although the whimsical drawing and painting is inventive, I find the larger than life figure hard to relate to in any intimate way. Consequently the assertive image seems to provoke anxiety through the misshapen limbs rather than any sense of melancholy.

©blackdog 2009


  1. Oh, a cruel and shocking pic- an almost-human being- no face, "stumpy" (verstümmelte) or atrophic limbs, frozen blood-red clothing...- my first associations are Contergan children (Schering pharmacy) or invalids, disabled soldiers as victims of wars (cf. Otto Dix, Max Beckmann) or accidents-or a future horror vision of a mutilated mankind by...!
    I thought of Francis Bacon, too, or the reduced figures of Giacometti- a painting that might evoke and provoke some thoughts about what is essential for human beings and in which way the image of them has been altered- in contrast to for example classical beauty ideals. I is a sad painting for me- on the other side I remember some youngster who wore their sweaters in that way just for fun!
    Your description of the painting is very precise- the interpretation must be open!

  2. I understand your initial reading, and I have to admit that when I first saw the show I didn't like the work at all. But the paintings had got under my skin and grew on me once I was over that first reaction. She has work in Tate Modern and describes her work as “Psychofiguration - morphed beyond fixed sexual identity through which she examines issues of identity, gender and sexuality. Often these figures begin as self-portraits that are then contorted into androgynous beings". So still an open verdict!