December 21, 2016
'It's about the body as felt, not as looked at'
London-born artist Nicola Tyson’s work as an artist has spanned a wide range of media: photography, written word, paintings and drawings. Her large figure drawings, presented at CIA in fall 2016 along with paintings by Angela Dufresne, represent the body as an instrument through which we perceive our worlds. Tyson and Dufresne visited CIA for the opening of the exhibition Living Dangerously in the Reinberger Gallery, and Tyson answered a few questions for us about her life and work.
When you were a kid, what did you think you wanted to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be an ecologist. I was very interested environmental issues. I used to breed native butterflies and moths to boost the colonies I’d find in our big suburban garden on the edge of London. My first—and so far only—art prize was from the Young Ornithologists Club when I was 11. It was for drawing birds’ beaks and claws and their uses! I was always copying birds out of identification books. I didn’t come from an arty family, so mimesis was greatly admired and encouraged. Once I realized I was an artist, however, I never drew anything directly from life again—except the models in life-drawing classes at art school.
Have you always been making paintings and sculpture?
In my teens, my interests shifted from nature to culture, as it were, as I became involved in the London punk and club scene of the late ’70s. I enrolled at Chelsea School of Art to study graphic design, then changed course to study painting at Central St. Martins School of Art. I worked as a freelance photographer in the music press during that time to earn extra cash, made some Super 8 movies and performed in a band.
You grew up in London; what prompted your move to New York?
At art school I encountered feminist art and theory for the first time, which was life changing. I was very inspired by the work being done by women in New York at that time in the ’80s — Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger and performance artists such as Karen Finley, along with much older artists, notably Louise Bourgeois. There wasn’t a hopping art scene in London yet. That came in the ’90s. In the ’80s, the London art scene was still quite small and male-dominated. After a trip to New York City with some student friends, I returned to live there in ’89. In the early ’90s, my partner and I ran a project space together out of my studio loft called Trial Balloon. It was a woman-only space, with a special focus on the emerging lesbian subculture at that time—artists such as Nicole Eisenman.
What can you tell us about your art process? Do you draw daily? How do you begin?
I draw into a sketchbook to generate ideas. I don’t draw daily — I tend to do it in spurts every now and then. Some sketches ask to be developed into paintings, and those I’ll photograph and project onto the canvas. Larger drawings—such as those in this show—are found by working directly onto the paper in graphite or ink.
What’s the relationship between the figures you render and real people? That is, do your figures often begin with observations of real people or are they more imaginative?
No, there is rarely any connection to real people. I have done the occasional portrait, though, and lots of self-portraits.
In one interview, you said that every successful drawing you do surprises you in some way. It makes me wonder if you do much that you deem to be unsuccessful.
Oh, yes of course! The ones that don’t surprise me go straight in the bin!
What do you think is the allure of distortion, either in terms of your inclination to do it in your work or in the appeal of it as an observer?
I’m describing a relationship to the body that seems challenging at first—alienated and angry. Then gradually people realize that my work is actually quite tender, that I’m mapping a subjectivity they can recognize and identify with. It’s about the body as felt, not as looked at.
Any observations about why your work seems to feel so much at home in a gallery with Angela Dufresne’s paintings?
Our work is complimentary because we’re coming towards some similar challenging perceptions—about the body, sexuality and artistic authority—but from completely different directions. I’m all about a contained intimacy and delicate boundaries, whereas Angela pursues a kind glorious abundance, surrender and embrace.
What are you working on now?
There’s a mini retrospective —works on paper and painting —from 2008 to the present opening in January 2017 at Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis. Then I have a solo show of painting with Sadie Coles HQ in London, opening in June and then a solo show of works on paper at The Drawing Room — a great not-for-profit space in London — opening in September. I’ve also just finished a body of sculptural work —wooden figures, very much like my drawings — but have yet to decide how and where they will be exhibited.
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