LondonHauser & Wirth
May 22 – September 07, 2019
The still life painting—that most quotidian of art genres—is given a modern makeover in Hauser & Wirth’s latest exhibition, Keith Tyson: Life Still. The artist’s 25 new works adorn the burgundy walls of one large room in a display of technical virtuosity, conveying the same basic content—a bouquet of flowers, a vase—but executed in myriad different styles. The particularity of the still life, with its lineage in Ancient Greek culture, is fused with a postmodern pluralism: its ordinary contents are reimagined using varying scientific, mathematical, and art-historical frameworks.
Tyson’s fascination with the genre appears as far back as 2012, with The Passage of Time Is Perfumed with Your Presence (2012): a vibrant display of assorted blooms and forms, with the ravaged materiality of the canvas indicating the passing of time more than any symbolic association. Particularly inspired by 16th century Dutch still lifes, whose imagery reflected the riches of the New World—the merchant class’s wealth, exotic flora and fauna—these new paintings update the still life for our current age. The exhibition illustrates an era immersed in technology, with Tyson describing contemporary individuals as “decentralized nodal things” inextricable from their environment and its many informational systems.
More immediately accessible than the images premised on mathematical formulas or computer code is The Stolen Child (2018–2019), a distillation of our narcissistic obsession with technology. The painting, headed with icons that imitate an iPhone screen, presents a fantasia of contents: mythology, poetry, and science all converge to echo the implicit moralising of the genre. Zaps of electricity emanate from two slender hands at the top of the picture where, below, winged creatures with immaculately toned bodies stand among pink and orange blooms, gazing deeply into their iPhones. The Stolen Child, as the title implies, suggests technology’s hypnotic power over our generation, and a societal preoccupation with ideals of beauty.
Time’s Arrow (1969–2019) is a nostalgic melee of retro games and ’80s culture references, analogous with still life’s traditional abundance of foodstuffs, tableware, and flowers. With the date range of the image alluding to Tyson’s birth year, one can interpret this as a reflection of his formative years, with the painting full of iconic toys such as the Rubik’s Cube, and tapes of musical artists such as David Bowie and Eurythmics. It’s a reflective summation of the cultural environment the artist emerged from, and a meditation on the passing of time: in particular the DeLorean from Back to the Future (1985) sitting alongside a vase of desiccated flowers. Like the subgenre of vanitas paintings—whose tableaus included symbols of mortality like spoiling fruit or a human skull—it’s a reminder of the transience of life, the folly of youth. Heightening this impression of constant change, surface splotches of blue paint disrupt the image’s illusion of nostalgic stasis.
With Life Still, Tyson continues to refute the notion of an autonomous self, presenting himself in collaboration with innumerable processes—natural, chemical, and mathematical—rather than as the sole author of his creations. In the 1990s, his Artmachine generated random ideas using algorithms and flow charts that he then realized in multiple media (despite sometimes being contrary to his personal taste) while in The Nature Paintings (2005–2008), he harnessed natural processes to create the impression of organic forms on acid primed aluminum. At Hauser & Wirth, we see him again employing scientific and mathematical principles to help determine the outcome of his work. Seed of Consciousness (2019), which comprises a series of overlapping circles with cellular imagery, invokes the Boltzmann constant—given as “Kb U Kt”—to measure the ratio of energy in molecular-scale systems. Procedurally Generated Rose (2019), meanwhile, was largely engendered using an equation entered into a graphic calculator; this same formula, one assumes, underscores the image of a looming, ethereal white rose.
Although de-emphasizing the artist’s importance in creative production, this might be Tyson’s most autobiographical show, as much informed by his own personal history as deterministic processes. The Time Traveller ‘1976’ (2018) is an engaging multi-media work, a picture within a picture. The central image of a geisha surrounded by floating digits is placed within a larger frame, on a support of bricks layered with torn, discoloured wallpaper. While the main image is signed “Tyson 18,” the support is inked with “Bower 76”: the latter alluding to the year his mother remarried and his surname changed. This seems to be an implicit acknowledgement of a rupture in his life and to his boyhood sense of self. It’s an imaginative evocation of mutable identity and temporal flux.
Tyson’s conflation of high and low culture, Eastern and Western artistic traditions, and different time periods, convey not only reality’s transience but the interconnectedness of all things. Still life’s reputation as a “lesser” form of art—the bottom rung of a 17th century hierarchy of genres—is subverted here. Artistic value judgements are suspended, his work evidencing fundamental principles that underlie all life processes, such as entropy and the laws of physics. Life Still, although sometimes challenging us with its specialist knowledge, spectacularly articulates the sentiment of William Blake’s Auguries of Innocence (1863): encouraging us to “see a World in a Grain of Sand / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower.”