The Other Homunculus:
inside the paintings of Nicola Tyson
Figure with Pigeon 2011 Oil on Linen 76 x 60 inches 193 x 152.4 cm Image courtesy Petzel Gallery
I'm sure I must have seen the word homunculus in print before this date, but the first time I ever heard it pronounced was in Woody Allen's Manhattan in 1979. Throughout the film, the Diane Keaton character has been singing the praises of her hunky ex-husband; when the Woody Allen character finally meets this paragon of virility, he discovers him to be a nebbish-looking little guy (played by Wallace Shawn). Woody is flabbergasted: Was she really talking about that 'little homunculus'?
Couple 2011 Oil on canvas 72 x 81 inches 182.9 x 205.7 cm Image courtesy Petzel Gallery
Somehow that moment has stuck with me for nearly thirty years. I suppose one of the things that struck me about it initially is what it said about the inherent cruelty to which an actor is subject: Isn't there something creepy about having to take a job based on the fact that someone thinks your looks have earned you a description like 'homunculus'? That's taking gnothi seauton a step too far for my taste. But today there's something else that strikes me about the use of the word in the film: That it marks the difference between a subjective impression of a body (the supposedly distorted way the Keaton character saw and remembered the Shawn character) and its objective characteristics, as registered in the presumed perceptions of the audience, who are supposed to identify with the Allen character's feelings of amazement at the mismatch.
Two Figures on Orange 2011 Oil on canvas 72 x 95 inches 182.9 x 241.3 cm Image courtesy Petzel Gallery
This brings to mind another homunculus, one that likewise marks the difference between subjective impressions and material reality. This is the cortical homunculus, used by neurologists as a representation of what's sometimes been called 'the body within the brain'. Because the hands, lips, genitals, and feet have far more sensory neurons than other parts of the body, they are said to be correspondingly more significantly represented in the brain. So this strange and grotesque visualization of the body's image in the brain is a human figure whose proportions are accordingly distorted. It's not an image of what the body looks like, but of what it feels like - or perhaps it would be better to say, of how much, how intensely, it is felt. Unlike the picture of Wallace Shawn in Diane Keaton's mind, however, this homunculus is not a subjective image; rather, it is an objective representation of a subjective image, because it has been produced by a consistent mapping of quantitative information.
Figure with Tree 2011 Oil on canvas 72 x 95 inches 182.9 x 241.3 cm Image courtesy Petzel Gallery
A painter's representation of a human body, too, may amount to a sort of homunculus. But this has not always been the case. For centuries, Western painters were involved in an enormous collective task: To develop the capacity to produce convincing naturalistic depictions of the world we see, and above all the bodies that inhabit that world. To this end, the study of perspective was pursued; likewise, chiaroscuro modelling. But painters studied anatomy too. That is, they studied both the inner structure of the body and an objective method for its representation-for the transcription of its appearance. Needless to say, none of that any longer forms a necessary part of a painter's work. And I'm not even thinking of abstract painters. Even a contemporary figure painter has very different goals from her pre-modernist antecedents.
Siblings 2011 Oil on canvas 76 x 60 inches 193 x 152.4 cm Image courtesy Petzel Gallery
In the case of Nicola Tyson, the task has nothing to do with registering the comical difference between a subjective perception and a putatively more objective one, nor with bringing an objective measure to subjective sense impressions, nor yet again with an objective mapping of the object world in which bodies move. Rather than in a tension between the subjective and the objective, or between two objectivities, her painting seems to find its impetus in a tension between subjectivities.
Self-Portrait with Friend_ 2011 Oil on canvas 72 x 95 inches 182.9 x 241.3 cm Image courtesy Petzel Gallery
I was a bit surprised to realize this. It's immediately obvious that Tyson has felt profoundly the impact of modernist painting-of Picasso, Matisse, and Miró, but also of the Austrians Klimt and Schiele-and so I think I had always assumed, without giving the matter too much thought, that her art was in part a confrontation with something objective, namely, with the materials of painting itself (paint or canvas) and with their immediate effects (the phenomenology of color or the picture plane). And of course those cannot be discounted. No one who has spent any time with Tyson's work can imagine that a single one of them has come into being except as the result of an intense engagement with their own material and perceptual conditions.
Dancing#1 2012 Graphite on paper 50 x 30 inches; 127 x 76.2 cm - unframed 54 .9 x 42.8 x 1.75 inches; 139.4 x 108.7 x 4.4 cm – framed Image courtesy Petzel Gallery
And yet, I've come to realize, there's something else to these paintings as well, something that that kind of modernist formalism cannot entirely acknowledge. This something is what I can only call the human presence that her paintings often emanate. Another name for this presence might be expression. This, as Matisse famously declared, 'does not reside in passion bursting from a human face or manifested by violent movement. The entire arrangement of my picture is expressive: the place occupied by the figures, the empty space around them, the proportions, all that has its share.' In short, according to Matisse, expression does not come from what a painting is of or about but from its form. And yet that's not the whole story, for this form arises from an encounter between subjectivities-not only through the encounter with 'a surface to be covered,' as the one-sided formalist reading of his work understands, but also, since the most engaging subject (in his view) was the human figure, with 'the deep gravity that persists in every human being'.
Dancing#3 2012 Graphite on paper 50 x 30 inches; 127 x 76.2 cm – unframed Image courtesy Petzel Gallery
Incidentally, we can see, in relation to Matisse's viewpoint, how much less of a modernist a painter like Bacon is-whom I mention because his name is often invoked in responses to Tyson's work, and for reasons that are not entirely superficial: The 'passion bursting from a human face or manifested by violent movement' is surely central to Bacon's art. In this, anyway, Tyson seems much closer in spirit to her French precursor. There is typically a sense of classical stasis to her paintings; the paint seems to lock the figure in place. Even when the pose is one that might imply movement (as for instance in Figure with Arm Extended, Figure Walking, or Figure Running-paintings from 2004 whose titles might seem to be implying distinct intensities of movement, a scale from lesser to greater) the painting seems to be doing everything in its power to rule out any illusion or insinuation of motion. It almost feels like a sort of definition: Painting is where motion stops.
Dancing#4 2012 Graphite on paper 50 x 30 inches; 127 x 76.2 cm – unframed Image courtesy Petzel Gallery
But not where it comes to rest. The stasis of the painting is not that of equilibrium, but of tensions at a standstill. But if Tyson is closer to Matisse than to Bacon, still, it is not because of their shared faith in the 'arrangement of the picture' as an adequate vehicle for expression. It's also that the arrangement points somewhere else: Looking at one of Tyson's paintings, I can't help but feel that it's about something-or rather, from someone-the painter saw, somewhere, sometime. Not someone she looked at, maybe, in the way Matisse (let alone a painter of earlier times) looked at, studied, a model he was painting from life. But someone glimpsed, or a glimpsed aspect of someone otherwise known: 'Content is a glimpse,' as de Kooning used to say. And what is glimpsed in these paintings seems to have to do with moments when someone inadvertently revealed him- or herself.
Tall Drawing#10 2012 Graphite on paper 46 5/8 x 16.5 inches 118.4 x 41.9 cm Image courtesy Petzel Gallery
That's why I say that Tyson's paintings have to do with the tension between subjectivities. It's the moment when my subjective sense of who you are crosses with your subjective sense of yourself. Something like this is what we see happening in Tyson's paintings when we consider that she once painted a large series of 'Portrait Heads' on paper in which all the eyes were white, blank-unrevealing. If the eyes are, as it's been said, the windows to the soul, then in this case the curtains have been drawn; a view into the souls of these personages is denied us.
Bouquet 2012 Acrylic/Videorot Trevira Television CS 32 x 26 inches; 81.3 x 66 cm Image courtesy Petzel Gallery
And yet we still feel a shock of recognition: We know them, beyond the surface image they mean to project. The protagonists of Tyson's paintings are like secondary characters in a great novel, glimpsed more fleetingly and often stranger or more grotesque than its main figures, because portrayed primarily as the object of another character's perception-but also for that reason more graphically vivid than the main character, entirely present in a tic, a gesture, a lightning flash of feeling across a face.
Vase of Flowers 2012 Oil on Linen 34 x 26 inches; 86.4 x 66 cm Image courtesy Petzel Gallery
Of course such perceptions are always also projections. That is why they embody the superimposition, or the conflict, of two subjectivities. Tyson once described her method by saying, 'I work from the inside out,' her subject being 'the body experienced rather than looked at'. In the first instance, this applies most readily to the paintings that she has explicitly designated as self-portraits, of which there have been a number over the years. At the risk of naïveté, I take this designation at face value, though these self-portraits prove her point about not working from external appearances: They don't particularly resemble their author more or less than some other paintings of hers might. But if I am on the right track in thinking that those of Tyson's paintings that are not called self-portraits really are about other people, then her statement may seem to need some interpreting before it will square with my surmise.
Clearly, this body experienced 'from the inside out' is Tyson's version of what I have called a homunculus. (I might as well acknowledge here how unfortunate it is that the Latin language puts me in the same embarrassing position here as English does; since the same word is used to mean 'male' and 'person' I am forced to use a word that, because it means 'little man,' seems to refer to a male even when it must be used to refer to a body of female gender.) These paintings are images of the body in terms, not of one's own subjectivity, but in terms of another, observing subjectivity. In painting the sensations of the self rather than its visual gestalt, Tyson may seem to come close to Expressionism-and the distortions of the features of the neurologist's homunculus also recall Expressionism, in that case as a sort of unintentional pastiche-but the difference is that Tyson does not appeal to pure subjectivism, as one might imagine would be the case with an art that depicts corporeal experience from the inside out. Because Tyson's art is stretched between two subjectivities it does not fall into solipsism. Such an art reminds us that, somehow or other, we experience other people from the inside out too.
Three poems by Barry Schwabsky
The Sleep of Pictures
The sky looked in
from where my window had put it
according to a timetable established
in all its murky charity
by the raining sound of cars
you can move your mouth across the image
on which a moth flutters
confused by the coffee on your breath
the stars are tidy in their places
but prefer to lean toward you
as if straining to hear a tremor
or ruffle the film of belief
that clings to our false memories of color
and the pleasures of nothing more to say.
Second Surprise of Love
with stalking eyes
the laughter in her limbs
these fingers paint cornflower days white
but its gloss reflects the wrong face
you made a bad deal with music
it breaks your voice into bits of moisture
bright drops from a calm fountain
on the blind eye of a lens.
In rooms with running water
and peeling skin
she changed clothes
met death at the window
her eyelashes slow
above a backmasked voice
complaining people don't stay put
no they never stay put.