A Full Deck Keith Tyson


“There’s something really sexy about a card,” says Turner Prize-winning Keith Tyson, introducing his most recent body of work. It sounds like a provocation from an artist who has not shied from the role of provocateur, and whose work has consistently pushed a degree of de-personalization. For two decades, his highly varied mixed-media work has consistently obeyed what he calls “rules.” “You stand in front of a blank canvas, and you don’t know what it’s going to be,” says the artist. “And then you make some rules for yourself, and you create something. The residue is there, and what it is really is an exchange from potential to specificity. An artist is on that boundary all the time, in the studio negotiating the work.”


Tyson’s rules have previously involved using chance to dictate form and content; his current exhibition at The Pace Gallery, “52 Variables,” takes this conceit at face value (literally). The artist has created 52 mixed-media on aluminum paintings that, like a computer screen or a canvas, serves as a vessel for images: the back of a playing card. Each image is culled from the artist’s collection of playing cards (though he only collects the Jokers), and the selections—the Twitter logo, traditional red and blue playing card motifs, a trepanation scene and an ornate geisha—rides deliberately outside of history, proposing the ahistoric nature of icon and game.

“I’m not interested in fetishizing a screen, or printing out a picture or creating digital art,” says Tyson of his choices. He uses the conventional appearance of the card to create an archive of icons that reflects both a democratic ingestion of images, and some of the social and institutional hierarchies that may remain. “I struggle at the size of a single painting, so I worked on composing the scale of the entire series, the entire deck, and making that work,” says the artist. “Society’s full of individuals, and [with an artwork] you can model it and say what it does as a mass.  But you can also look at any individual of the group, and see it as what it is. Every painting [in “52 Variables”] struggles to be an individual, as every human being does. When I see one individual artwork separated, like a frame in a film, I’m always interested in how that one painting is going to fit in a group.”  LEFT: 52 VARIABLES (NUMBER 32), 2010. PHOTOS COURTESY KEITH TYSON AND THE PACE GALLERY.

Tyson began his career with “The Artmachine Iterations” (1991–1999), wherein the artist allowed for programmed systems to dictate the form and content of his work. In a string of subsequent shows he dealt with a similar play of input and output, notably 2007’s “Large Field Array.” Named for the infamous radio astronomy observatory in New Mexico, and comprising some 300 individual sculptures set in a grid, the work struck one as a limitless and lawless venture. Sculptures depicting everything from a tiny, magically-functioning tornado to a giant Friends Central Perk coffee cup riddled the floor and climbed up the walls of Pace Wildenstein; yet the body of work was absolutely defined by the artist’s organizing principle. Each axis of the grid represented a different structural idea-example: recreational mathematics-and each sculpture’s translated that theme, and that of its bisecting axis.

Its grandiosity now seems a sign of its times. “One of the big criticisms was how much the piece cost to make. But it was made at a certain time when it was possible to make,” states Tyson. “And rather than, say, make an object out of gold, I made an object that’s about the complexity of mass. So those criticisms were very disappointing, because I found them simplistic. When money is on its way to building a nuclear weapon, it might as well pass through me and generate this.”

As a symbol, the card is Janus-faced—changes in fortune, mortality, mood—and living suspended between these two polls is their enduring and tense seduction. Yet his forms inhabit life from the inside: they are not cold or unfamiliar, and in earnest they represent aspects of his personal life. Known for earning more money gambling on himself to win the Turner Prize than the actual sum of the prize itself—a move that would signal a publicity play in a less philosophical risk-taker—the artist has a long-standing fascination with gambling. “People think that people who gamble are really interested in money. But most gamblers I know are not interested in money at all,” says Tyson. “They’re interested in action, and action is very symbolic in changing money from it’s utility to it’s true nature, which is kind if an I-owe-you on human value. There’s a certain honesty with gamblers in that way: what they’re dealing with is just figures, they don’t think of money in terms of its utility.”

Tyson clearly regards the work as social critique, to a degree, and didactic, and his interest in practicum of process seems in part a way to both define and conquer this distance between knowing and feeling. “I find game theory and mathematics fascinating as a discipline,” says the artist. “But for me, art has to communicate something about being a human being in our society.”