The broad and brittle brushstrokes and teeth-grinding, acid hues that Nicola Tyson favors in her work would be a recipe for disaster for less talented painters. But in each canvas, the London-born, New York-based artist skillfully weds these elements to agitated lines and stark compositions that set the stage for riveting psychodramas born of the artist’s imagination. In most of the eight large-scale works here, she establishes a tense interaction between two wildly distorted figures, or occasionally, a figure and a cartoonish, abstracted animal, all set against wide background bands of one or two high-key colors.
Despite her 20-some years in the U.S., Tyson retains a distinctly British sensibility. Her work belongs to a long tradition of the grotesque in British postwar figure painting, from Graham Sutherland’s gut-wrenching “Crucifixion” images of the late 1940s and Francis Bacon’s screaming popes of the 1950s to R.B. Kitaj’s narrative works of the 1960s and more recent paintings by Tony Bevan, Glenn Brown, Jenny Saville and others. Tyson employs simple means, but the works in this show—all painted in 2011—elicit surprisingly complex emotional responses: from giddy delight to nightmarish horror.
Among the show’s highlights, Self-Portrait with Friend is a mesmerizing work that features a weirdly proportioned armless figure on the right who seems to have just stood up from a tripodlike turquoise toilet. A companion on the left in this rather intimate interior scene is similarly misshapen, as if bound head to toe to form a hook. Figure with Sphinx lends a mythological dimension to the proceedings. It shows a blond boy standing next to a winged creature on a pedestal. For me, the exhibition’s most unforgettable painting is Two Figures Touching, in which two harlequinlike characters (one’s face is black, the other’s purple) set against a sensuous cantaloupe-colored background engage in a lively minuet.
While these paintings show Tyson working at the highest level of her two-decade career, she breaks no new ground here. Her more adventurous efforts—though not her most successful—are in the nine sculptures she displayed in Petzel’s adjunct space. These small abstract pieces, in bronze or modeling compound, feature diminutive, lumpy shapes placed on waist-high pedestals. In the best of them, two elements interact: a rough-hewn blob countering small, smooth egg shapes, for instance, in Duck with Eggs. But while the sculptures relate to the canvases in terms of this conceptual dichotomy, they share little of the paintings’ potent charge.
Photo: Nicola Tyson: Figure with Sphinx, 2011, oil on canvas, 72 inches square; at Friedrich Petzel.