Nicola Tyson’s grotesque bodies and faces

This essay appeared in Nicola Tyson: Beyond the Trace Exhibition Guide at The Drawing Room, London:

Nicola Tyson
Nicola Tyson, ‘The Selfies’, 2017

Drawing may be the starting point for Nicola Tyson’s better-known work in painting, but for the artist it is also an end in itself. Most of her drawings, in fact, are made for their own sake. ‘When working in a sketchbook, it’s only those [drawings] that feel like they could be developed further, through the introduction of colour, that I pull out and use as the basis of a painting,’ Tyson insists.1 In those instances, she tends to project what may have been a rapidly executed drawing directly onto canvas, before beginning the painstaking process of fleshing it out with colour.

The artist has often distinguished the slow and deliberate manner in which she paints from her more intuitive and quickly executed drawings; but that’s not to say that all her drawings are dashed off. ‘The larger drawings can be extremely slow to complete because they may involve shading and cross-hatching,’ she explains. ‘I feel my way to completion – much as I do with paintings – and may leave and return to them over many days or weeks.’ The recent and new works on paper brought together for Beyond the Trace at Drawing Room vary considerably in their size, the materials used (ink, graphite, acrylic paint) and format (vertical, horizontal, square).

The scale of the work determines the thickness of the paper support; for her larger drawings the artist tends to prefer thicker, more resilient paper stock. Opting for graphite or ink does not radically alter the way the artist works since, as she puts it, she ‘very rarely need[s] to erase anything: ‘mistakes’ are incorporated or used as a springboard for gear changes in mark-making’. Tyson admits that working like this can be nerve-wracking but for her it is ‘the only way to get to and keep on target in finding a ‘truthful’ image – one that grows itself’. To understand what she means by this, we must delve deeper into the intuitive and fluid – as opposed to rational and deliberate – process of working that the artist favours when attempting ‘to lay down the energetic structure of the drawing’.2 To get at the truthful image, she lets the hand guide her, ‘bypassing that rational decision-making, pattern-recognition, problem-solving part of thinking’. The hand, not the eye. Tyson confides that she has been known to draw with her eyes closed on occasion, at least to start with, and that she barely looks at the image until it is done.

In drawing as in writing, the hand appears to have a mind of its own. Tyson acknowledges that the hand responds to signals from her brain, whether it is the brain seated in her head, her heart or her gut, elaborating:

‘When sketching or laying down – capturing, it feels like – the basics for a more involved drawing, it feels as if I must let the hand find the image and try not to interfere, until I feel I have captured the necessary information, a presence. Successful images – ones that are alive – will appear unfamiliar to me, in that I could not have thought them up, contrived them.’

Underscoring the sheer material variety that illustrates the versatility of the drawing medium is Tyson’s quest for an ‘unfinished’ quality: ‘The danger is in over finishing, once the process slows down. I try to leave the drawing at a point where the viewer gets to finish it […], by observing those energies at the point when they are just about to fall still and stop. This is the case in painting too – to keep the image alive so that it completes each time you look at it.’

The series of five enigmatic life-sized ink drawings from 2016 perfectly illustrate the point the artist alludes to in the above statement. These works – each of which features the bare outline of a female figure spanning the full picture frame, practically from head to toe – are quite literally life-sized at 182.9 x 106.7 cm. Their slightly tilted heads, turning torsos, arms either outstretched or akimbo, and above all, legs striding forth, unnaturally foregrounded and noticeably wider towards the bottom, forcefully convey a sense of movement, of barely contained energy. The limbs peter out, appear to be stunted or barely suggested, as in the twin circles that stand for hands (or is it fists?) and elsewhere for ovaries in Uteryne (2016). The title offers a possible reading of the image with its prominent central lock motif representing, on one level, the female womb. Yet the crenellated end of the contraption, which is also the hemline of a short skirt, makes this viewer think of the chastity belts which crusading knights would use to lock the ‘private parts’ of their spouses, guarding them against temptation during their prolonged absences.

In ‘Nicola Tyson in Conversation with Herself’, the artist notes, in response to a question she puts to herself regarding the word ‘frock’, that the term ‘private parts’ is something of a misnomer when it comes to female genitalia, given that ‘women’s ‘parts’ aren’t private property – they’re viewed as available to, yet are policed by, the patriarchy… indeed are its private parts.’3This may explain the emphasis given to said ‘private parts’ not only in this series of images – most notably the one titled Pencil Stub (2016), featuring an outsized vagina dentata and breasts with unusually large nipples staring at the viewer like a second pair of eyes – but also in some of the tall and rather narrow graphite drawings on view in Beyond the Trace. Untitled (2008), for instance, depicts a spindly figure whose torso, decked with gaping white breasts, takes the place of a face deliberately left out of the frame so as to generate ambiguity. The breasts and hint of a navel become surrogate facial features, not unlike in René Magritte’s highly disturbing painting Rape (1945).That said, the artist is keen to distance herself from surrealist dream (and nightmarish) imagery, as well as automatic drawing techniques associated with the likes of André Masson, which spring to mind in relation to Tyson’s own largely intuitive process of drawing. For one thing, Tyson does not wish to be labelled in any way. Also, from the 90s onwards, she has been striving to go beyond what she calls her own ‘learned male gaze’ in order to find ‘new imagery that could tell us something about ourselves (women) that we hadn’t seen represented before – the intuitive female body as experienced – lived in – not a surreal one of the art historical kind.’

Tyson’s transgressive, porous and permeable bodies, with their exposed sexual parts and prominent orifices, align her work with the grotesque sensibility. The grotesque, from the Italian word grotto, has its roots in the Renaissance rediscovery of Roman frescoes depicting hybrid creatures caught in a dense web of floral patterns. Yet the wider concept owes as much – if not more so – to Mikhail Bakhtin’s classic study Rabelais and His World (1965), and his understanding of the ‘grotesque body’, as illustrated by the family of giants and other larger-than-life characters who people the French sixteenth-century author’s subversive literary oeuvre. Tyson’s tall drawings – in particular Untitled (2009), with its outsized turbaned head that evokes a Charles Rennie Mackintosh rose pattern, and the bulbous, Bellmeresque, maimed and contorted body of Untitled (2009), ending in exquisitely drawn hoofs – partake of this sensibility.

In its contemporary and painterly guise, the genre has been dominated by male artists whose work ‘tends towards provocatively sexualised depictions of women’, as Jonathan Griffin points out in his essay on ‘The grotesque’ published in Tate Etc.4 Griffin counts Tyson among the female artists – alongside Dana Schutz, Nicole Eisenman and Tala Madani – who in recent years have turned to making grotesque images of women in a bid to claim the grotesque for themselves and counter the male hold on it. In his eyes, the feminist artists who exemplify this trend, ‘share a sensitivity to the interior experience of the female body, and the ways in which that inner space projects into the outside world’, effectively dissolving the boundaries between self and other.

This kind of sensitivity is reflected in two new works made especially for the show at Drawing Room, The Selfies (2017) and The Secret (2017). These twin horizontal graphite drawings were intended as a counterpoint to the verticality of the other works on view. The format is dictated in part by their subject matter; each represents two women, in marked contrast to other works in the exhibition which, by and large, feature solo figures. Some of these are the artist herself under different guises – most explicitly so in the colour monotypes, referred to as ‘self-portraits’ rather than as ‘portrait heads’, a more neutral label that leaves the identity of the subject open.

The Selfies show two female heads side by side, as if tied together by their hair, respectively shorter and longer, which forms a flowing boundary between the artist’s fictional self and her other half. ‘I wanted to return to exploring characters in relationship to one another,’ Tyson says of these two drawings. Whether lovers or merely friends, their closeness suggests an intimacy, just as the two faces, seen in profile – one leaning in towards the other, as she gazes into the distance – subtly convey the exchange of confidences in The Secret. The ‘selfie’ is to a ‘self-portrait’ what a ‘snog’ is to a ‘kiss’: a refreshingly pop way of deflating loaded art historical subjects (Snog, in the 2015 ‘daily drawings’ series, is a case in point). On top of that, the two female ‘sitters’ in The Selfies are crying – one has ray-like tears streaming down her cheeks and the other dark puddles beneath her eyes beside other tell-tale signs of disarray. In her Anti-Selfie series of photographic self-portraits, the Dutch artist Melanie Bonajo systematically records all the occasions on which she has cried. Tyson’s The Selfies also wilfully subvert selfie norms and the expectation that women always have to smile, look pretty and appear available. Tyson pokes fun at this in ‘Dear Man on the Street’, the first of her mock-epistles published together as Dead Men Letters. In this one instance, she takes on not a famous male artist but rather the obnoxious passer-by who tells her to ‘smile’, prompting her to do so when she least feels like it.

In her monotypes Tyson uses colour to further sabotage such ‘mandated behavior’. Despite the bright red lips and playful polka-dot patterned orange frocks in Self-Portrait: Coy (2016) and Self-Portrait: Worried (2016), these figures are hardly alluring in the traditional sense.  There is nothing remotely sexy about the featureless faces, by turns gaunt and bloated, framed by ever receding brown hairlines and clothing items whose random shades and patterns (‘green shirt’, ‘black turtle neck’, ‘dots’, etc.) spell out different modes of fatigue in the acrylic works sharing the title Self-Portrait: Tired (all 2016). At the close of her interview with herself, Tyson describes these monotypes as a species of printing, since the acrylic paint is first applied to glass and then printed onto paper in reverse. Yet they also represent another way to draw, as the marks we see are the result of strokes made on the back of the paper. This ‘back-to-front way of working’, as her interviewer calls it, has the advantage of allowing her to ‘drop directly into color’ and move beyond the confines of the graphic line.

1Nicola Tyson, in an email exchange between the author and the artist, 6 September 2017. Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations are from this interview.

2 Jenny Bahn, ‘The Shape of Things’, interview, Office magazine, 2017

3Nicola Tyson, Works on Paper catalogue (New York: Petzel Gallery, 2016), p. 78

4Tate Etc.,Issue 26, autumn 2012