CLOSE LOOKS: "LANDSCAPE" BY MARK TANSEY
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Mark Tansey’s massive red and white painting, almost six feet tall and twelve feet wide, depicts a jumble of fragmented statues piled high in a barren, desert-like landscape. Two full-length figures lie at the base of this heap. Their forms come together to create a bright, wide, horizontal section that grounds the mound of sculptures. A variety of large and small heads surrounds this area.
The collection of statues narrows as it grows into a pyramidal form. All of the figures in the pile appear to be male, and thanks to Tansey’s realistic rendering of their faces, some of the sculptures are identifiable. George Washington, for example, peeks out from the bottom left section of the heap, while the Roman emperor Constantine, located on the right, stares vacantly into the distance. Other statues, like the Egyptian sphinx at the top of the pile and the heads of two pharaohs at the base of its right side, evoke images of civilizations past. Still others, particularly in the middle of the group, remain unidentifiable, melding together into a chaotic mass of carved stone.
On the whole, the busts at the top of the mound are larger than those at its base, and a collection of heads and bodies rest at the pyramid’s feet as though they have fallen off this precarious pile. A single finger emerges from the sand just left of the center of the canvas. An ancient column lies to the right. Sand, dotted with tiny sculptures, fills the spaces in between these larger statues. Small rocks are scattered throughout the landscape, each casting its own tiny shadow on the ground.
In the background, a group of glowing white clouds drift across the canvas, separating the deep crimson sky from the brighter scene lying below. The clouds, located primarily on the right side of the painting, swirl together and reflect the light of the sun. A single, wispy cloud floats near the pyramid’s left side. Faint, horizontal streaks of light emerge from the almost-solid sky.
The saturated color that dominates the upper left corner of the canvas reappears in the recessed areas of the fragmented statues and the shadows that they cast. Shadows in the clouds and the sand, to the right of and below the pyramidal pile, respectively, glow in a softer, pinkish tint. In contrast, the tops of the clouds and the highpoints of the carved figures shine brightly, a sign of the artist’s practice of removing the paint on the surface of the canvas to reveal the white gesso below it. As a result of this process, a faint cast of red remains in these white sections, creating a hazy, dreamlike veil that covers the entire piece.
First you see the red. So much red. Shades of red, offering hopes of yellow, purple, grey, and black in this desert landscape. But instead, there is only red and white, as if we are seeing a vista of Mars, made in hopes of luring some future traveler.
Monument Valley. A landscape made by geology and John Ford, imbued with beliefs and practices of indigenous peoples present and past.
Egypt. Pharaohs in a tumble. Ozymandias. Stalin. George Washington. You access the work through glimpses of recognition, associations, as if it will speak more the more you look.
Monuments are for erecting and toppling. But in this landscape, everything is toppled, everything is still standing. We’re not sure if this is meant to be a leveling, or just a reminder that leaders, no matter how venerated, are eventually forgotten, left on a forgotten heap of history, made all the smaller when viewed from a distance.
– Martin L. Johnson is an associate professor in UNC-Chapel Hill’s English and Comparative Literature Department and the acting director of the Film Studies Program at UNC.
Mark Tansey, American, born 1949, Landscape, 1994, oil on canvas, 71 3/4 x 144 1/2 in. (182.2 x 367.0 cm). © Mark Tansey. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas, 2014.29. Photography by Edward C. Robison III.
A mass of toppled effigies in the middle of a blighted wasteland, I see a rubbish pile of spent power. Depending on my position in relation to the painting, its monochromatic hue seems to fall somewhere between a sickly dark orange and a sepia-like reddish-brown. Between the barrenness of the depicted landscape and the monotony of its color, nothing seems healthy about the image. As I work to decode the sundry visages lying within the sand, I see figures as repugnant as Adolf Hitler near more celebrated leaders like Abraham Lincoln. Despite the collage-like assembly of faces within the mound, the figures read to me as each having a hefty mass, possibly because the oversize canvas itself seems to dominate me. Or perhaps because the figures are positioned in a desert landscape that seems so evocative of the solidity of ancient Egyptian monuments. Ultimately, maybe I assume they are discarded sculptures because humankind is wired to see leaders enshrine themselves in a definitive three dimensions while history loses its subtleties to the vagaries of time.
– Lauren Turner is associate curator for contemporary art and special projects at the Ackland, she is also an alumna of UNC-Chapel Hill, the university that saw Silent Sam both installed and toppled.
I see the Sphinx and Stalin, severed from their stone perches, lying in a pile of waste with Hitler’s chiseled head. Jefferson juts from the heap of stone and Lenin rests at Caesar’s feet. They’re all here – the men, their ideas, their institutions, and their urge to destroy, as they find themselves now, broken and buried. The mood is inescapable. It confronts us with the brutal force of an unrepentant army: beware of power, beware of idols and idolatry, beware of ideas that must be concretized in public spaces to become real. Beware of anything that slips people into categories of “us” and “them,” categories that enrich some and ruin others. These men have been consigned to this crimson pile because of their sameness, not as heads of state, but in their shared impulse to exploit others under the pretext of nationalism.
– John Bechtold is a veteran, artist, and academic. His work focuses on the dissonance between representations of warfare in public memory and lived experience.
- Describe the figures. What associations do you have with these figures or figures like them?
- Imagine walking in this landscape – what would it feel like to encounter this mound?
- What other senses (i.e., smell, taste, touch) are activated when viewing this work?
- The creation of Tansey’s paintings involves multiple steps. He selects images from his extensive image library, combines them into collages, photocopies and re-photocopies the composition, and uses the result as the basis for the painting. He covers the white base layer – called gesso – with solid blocks of color and creates the image through a subtractive process, wiping and scraping paint away to reveal his final product. What connections can you draw between the artist’s process of removal, the nature of the figures represented, and the setting in the desert sand?
- Learn more about this painting in the Ackland’s About the Art guide.
- Look closely at Landscape in this video created by Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art educator Will Knauer featuring artist Hisae Yale.
- Create your own Tansey-inspired artwork with artist Hisae Yale in this Crystal Bridges video.
- Explore this resource for educators created by Crystal Bridges for middle and high school students exploring Landscape.
- Read about Mark Tansey’s artistic process in this post on the Crystal Bridges blog.
- Learn about Mark Tansey through Gagosian.
- Landscape and other works in Houseguests: American Art from the Art Bridges Collection Loan Program helped to inspire the Ackland Film Forum Fall 2022 series Art & Artifice. The series was presented at the Varsity Theatre in September and October 2022 in partnership with UNC-Chapel Hill’s Film Studies Program, led by acting director Martin L. Johnson. The series featured films that engaged and expanded the idea of creativity. From sculptors to dressmakers, performers to survivors, these films all ask what it means to create art in the cinema.
- Ang Lee, Life of Pi (2012, US)
- Andre DeToth, House Of Wax (1953, US)
- Blake Edwards, Victor/Victoria (1982, US)
- Charles Allen, Sidewalk Stories (1989, US)
- Peter Strickland, In Fabric (2018, UK)
Generously lent by Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art as part of the Art Bridges’ Collection Loan Partnership initiative.