The Enigmatic Art of Nicola Tyson

Had Nicola Tyson been born in the 16th and not the 20th century she would have been a cartographer, mapping her passage through space by drawing the people and creatures she encountered in the course of that transforming journey. Looking at her drawings puts you in mind of late medieval artists who had heard reports about land and sea creatures, but had never seen them. So they imagined what they must have looked like. The result is a bestiary of fabulous animals—sea swine and devilish serpents and armoured herbivores—with horns and beaks, spiked tails, webbed feet, formidable jaws, furry scales and elaborate plumages.

Tyson’s animals and humans are similar hybrids that find their form and character in the act of being drawn. Graphite Drawing #19, 2014, shows a figure striding forward and gesturing towards another smaller figure in the distance. It appears to be an image of loss and imminent longing. The back of the main figure is an intricate carapace, as if Albrecht Dürer’s woodcut of a rhinoceros from 1515 had leaped ahead in time, leached out the colour, but retained the pattern of a Gustav Klimt painting. Dürer never actually saw the animal he rendered, but it remains convincing today. Tyson saw her figure only after she made it, and it is equally persuasive.

Nicola Tyson, Head #9, 2016, acrylic on paper, 24 x 18 inches. All images courtesy the artist and Petzel, New York.

As a child, she was a sojourner in nature, a bird- watcher and a breeder of butterflies. There is evidence of that experience in her art; she has drawn hefty butterflies beginning their migration and painted a self-portrait depicting herself laying an egg. From her earliest exhibitions, the bodies of her figures have assumed the posture and gestural qualities of animals, birds and other flying things. They perform rituals that include peculiar courting dances and ashes of awkward peacockery. She has a sense that she is on some kind of continuum with animals. “I don’t feel separate,” she says. “There is a boundary-dissolving thing that goes on in the work, where people become plants and landscapes become people because I like that feeling of merging.”

Tyson’s birdly creatures are amazing creations: the bird in Sketchbook #28, 2005, has the plumpness of a partridge, the webbed feet of a duck and a hat with a black shark fin; in Graphite Drawing #16, 2014, it has a nippled breastplate, a three-part fanned tail with a whisk, and gartered leggings that turn into spats. Her animals and humans are fancy; they are aware of how they hold themselves in space. So the figure in an ink-on-paper drawing called Great Pants, 2016, wears exactly what the naming describes, a pair of bellbottoms of stilting attenuation. In her most recent self-portrait Tyson sports a red tie as large and solid as a cricket bat.

She talks about drawing as “mapping around with a pencil” and she describes her overall approach to composition as “mapping this very delicate dance where consciousness enters matter.” This process is one that she generates from the inside out; her psyche needs soma to which she then gives form. She makes it matter, as both material and conviction. “I wanted to come up with a new way of looking at and representing female subjectivity because there wasn’t enough of it.”

Head #8, 2016, acrylic on paper, 24 x 18 inches.

She was mapping a kind of void. “I started to draw a female body from the perspective of having one rather than looking at one, it being my home.” Her wilful cartography has resulted in a pictorial language of unique form and intense detail. Her engagement is not only with shape-changing but with shape-making. It is a pictorial world that is in constant flux. “I’m bringing these momentary things to life,” she says about her bodies, “they’re really just fleeting arrangements that are literally caught. In the next frame they are going to shift into something else.”

When we look at Tyson’s painted and drawn figures we are apt to agree with Miranda from Shakespeare’s Tempest, who exclaims, upon first seeing a man, “How many goodly creatures there are here.” Enchanted by a benign and brave new world, she wonders at “How beauteous mankind is.” Nicola Tyson discovers herself in a new world of her own making, too. But from her perspective, it is womankind who is beauteous.

In 2005 she exhibited Nude, a large 75 x 54- inch oil and charcoal on linen painting. The figure stands in profile in a yellow space that seems saturated by sunlight. She is tall and thin and full-breasted and she raises her hand into a mass of grey hair that rests on the top of her head like an animal pelt. Her form, while lumpy and irregular, embodies a kind of craggy lyricism. Stripped of everything except her unadorned being, she is magnificent.

Nicola Tyson’s first American survey is on exhibition at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis from January 27 to April 16, 2017. She will read from Dead Letter Men on April 6 at the museum. Dead Letter Men was co-published in 2015 by Sadie Coles HQ London and Petzel Gallery in New York. On June 22, she will open a solo exhibition of new paintings at Sadie Coles HQ, and in late September a show of new works on paper will open at The Drawing Room in London, UK.

Great Pants, 2016, ink on paper, 72 x 42 inches.

The following interview was done by phone to New York on Sunday, January 15, 2017.

Border Crossings: In your letter to Gainsborough you mention your “fevered suburban childhood.” Do you want to flesh out what that childhood was like?

Nicola Tyson: Well, a suburban childhood back in the ’60s was quite different from what one would be like today. We didn’t have cell phones and social media, so you were thrown back on entertaining yourself. As a result, I was dealing with my own fevered imagination, without much distraction. And of course, the nuclear family was very claustrophobic. Ours was the classic two-child nuclear family of the ’50s and ’60s living in suburbia. My dad was an engineer and my mother was a teacher so I didn’t get much exposure to art. Instead, there was this family interest in environmental issues and going out walking and birdwatching. I thought that was going to be my vocation and then everything changed when I became a teenager and discovered pop culture. In the mid to late ’70s in London there was an emerging punk scene and I got thoroughly involved in that. I discovered I was actually morebdrawn to art and that my skills as a child, drawing in a mimetic way, could be used for things other than reproducing reality, which was what I had been applauded for when I was a kid.

In your Manet letter you say that the only prize you ever received was for a set of bird drawings you had done for the Young Ornithologist Club.

Which is funny because that kind of thing emerges in the hybrid characters that I draw, in the weirdness of birds’ feet and beaks. You can see those odd formations in my work.

In a piece like Self-Portrait with Friend it looks like we’re observing a bird-mating ritual.

It’s true. When I paint I don’t set out to say any particular thing, and if I don’t know what’s going on in the paintings, that’s when I’m satisfied. If it’s enigmatic, I don’t push to find out what it’s about. I simply go with it and when people say things like you just said, then I see what I’ve done.

Self-Portrait with Friend, 2011, oil on canvas, 72 x 95 inches.

Is all your work operating in a similar way in that you don’t have a preconception about what you want to do, and that you find the work in the making?

Very much. I just start working with the pencil. The paintings are much more deliberate because once I’ve got a drawing that I want to use, I will project it carefully onto the canvas, and what follows is a much slower and deliberate process of fleshing out the image with colour. When I’m drawing I purposefully work pretty fast to lay down the energetic structure of the drawing. Obviously, the shading and cross-hatching takes time afterwards. But I do the initial downloading very quickly, so that I don’t intervene at any point and turn it into a contrivance. I always want to be surprised at what pops out, so I stay out of the way. It comes out of my hand and not my brain. I’m there to guide it around.

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Volume 36, Number 1

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #141, published March 2017.

Border Crossings looks at contemporary art with interest, passion and thoroughness. Subscribe to Border Crossings today for as little as $24/year.