Rugoff, Ralph, Artforum International
Mark Tansey's paintings conjure a dream world--that of someone who's fallen asleep during a lecture on the history of Modern art. Haunted by the likes of Marcel Duchamp and Jacques Derrida, his work teems with disorienting encounters, seamlessly mixing references to old master compositions adn Popular Mechanics. Nested within this dream world are the dreams of various 20th-century avantgardes, which are alternately parodied and saluted in what amounts to a case study in transcendent ambivalence.
That Tansey seems stuck was evident both in his modest traveling retrospective, curated by Judi Freeman, and in a gallery show of recent work. For 13 years, Tansey has tirelessly milked the tension between his tinted, monochromatic realism--a style evocative of old-fashioned illustration and photography, and hence a supposed conveyor of "truth"--and the fictitious histories and fables he depicts. This contradiction is meant to augment our notion of "realism," reminding us that representation itself is a type of dream, a shadowy mirror world where oppositions can unexpectedly merge and the only "truths" are the unnatural ones of artifice (reflections, the meeting of opposites, and shadowy caves [read: Plato's] are all recurring Tansey motifs).
Unfortunately, instead of problematizing his own referential acts, Tansey trots out tepid ambiguities and visual sophistries. His trademark is a cutely ironic literalism: if Paul de Man and Jacques Derrida see the world as a text, Tansey coyly takes them at their word, composing sublime landscapes from pages of their books. …