For over 30 years, with a diverse practice which ranges from sculpture and installations to paintings and drawings, the British Turner prize winning artist Keith Tyson has probed, dissected, explored, and questioned reality. Not fixed to one artistic style, Tyson’s mission is to challenge himself and the audience, whilst working with diverse materials – paint, clay, metal, resin – to question our knowledge of the world we perceive as real, and art’s role in representing it as such.
Even when he was at university in the 90s, Tyson pushed boundaries. He challenged the traditional role of the artist as the creator of art work by inventing The Art Machine. This conceptual device was an algorithm or precise sequence of specific instructions which generated random proposals for art works. The Art Machine provided the instructions, Keith executed the works. He even made work he despised in terms of taste, style and conceptual content because it instructed him to do so.
In later work, paint itself becomes the co-artist. In Nature Painting (2008) the paint is given agency by being poured with chemicals onto aluminium, and allowed to find its own way to making form and solidifying. In the more recent Life Still (2019) – the series of still lifes, he takes apart the traditional flower paintings of the 17th century by creating paintings which are as dissimilar in style as possible from each other. One series he calls the cyborgs because the flowers they depict are digitally photographed, are painted over, then photographed again – so they are suspended between the real and digital worlds.
This disregard of the artist as the sole creator of an original art work, but instead the belief of the artist being merely an entity which is part of an enmeshed and interconnected co-existence with the diverse elements which comprise the world, would seem to make Keith Tyson the most unlikely second artist selected to engage with that master stylist and painter Claude Monet. But then that is precisely makes him highly appropriate for Unexpected Dialogues – the series of annual commissions for contemporary artists to respond to permanent works in the Musée Marmotan Monet collection in surprising ways.
For his commission, Keith Tyson has chosen two contrasting works: Le Pont de l’Europe, La Gare Saint-Lazare 1877 – a gritty urban painting of the city of Paris in the steam age; Bras de Seine près de Giverny, soleil levant 1897 – a typically romantic painting of a tree beside a river. In one, there’s the speed and solidity of a steel train moving through the built environment of the city, the train’s material solidity obscured by diaphanous steam; in the other there’s the light shimmering on a tree bending over the flowing river shimmering with the colours of time passing. These paintings are masterly investigations into the phenomena of time, space and light.
Physics tells us that these phenomena are intimately connected. For example, when we look at a tree, we only see it because of the light the matter which the tree is composed of throws off. This light is then transferred into our eyes, and out of that light which travels across the distance to us, we reassemble the appearance of a tree. Thus we are always seeing the tree in the past because of the time which it takes to do this re-creation of its appearance. In that sense, a tree is not really present when we see it. It is always past. Like the act of painting, looking is merely a representation of the past, not the present.
What makes Tyson’s response to Monet so intriguing is that in his new work, he is using a multiplicity of pasts as the material with which he represents reality. His work comprises many different acts of looking across time and space, and not just one single fixed point of view in the same light. His new painting of the city of London is unsettling, unearthly and has a futuristic feel. It seems ablaze. It is actually composed from the different lights, colours, and reflections over a year of filming the same scene. Another painting called Four Seasons, is the same scene from Keith’s house in the country over a year – the fractral shapes in which one part of the view morphs into another season echoes those in Monet’s painting. In these new works Keith is challenging the confines of painting and the amount of information about time and space painting can hold in one canvas.
Like much of his work, the sciences partly influence Keith’s approach. Quantum physics, computing, biology, chemistry and astronomy are influences which are as much part of Keith’s palette as the materiality of the paint itself. For Monet too, science was an inspiration, helping him describe the world. In particular Monet was influenced by the science of light, including the innovative light wheel published by the French chemist, Michel Eugène Chevreul, in his book De La Roi de Contraste Simultane des Couleurs 1855. The wheel enabled the study of complimentary colours and illusions produced by proximity. It inspired Monet’s use and application of colour: a painting that looks from a distance as if it is made up of one colour field, is in fact hundreds of different colours which are carefully chosen to give the feeling of light as it falls.
With their engagement with science, and their challenging of accepted conventions of what painting is and what it can depict, both Monet and Tyson show that reality is not what it seems. Both create work which investigate paintings’ limits and possibilities to capture the truth of existence. And both show also, that art does not exist in a vacuum, but is deeply entangled with the sciences as a part of its process of showing the mysteries of the universe and the material world we live in.
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