Nicola Tyson was born in 1960 in London, England. She attended Chelsea School of Art, St. Martins School of Art, and Central/St. Martins School of Art in London. She currently lives and works in New York. Primarily known as a painter, Tyson also works with photography, film, performance, and the written word. Tyson's photographs document the early days of the Blitz Kids and the beginnings of the New Romantic movement -- late '70s, post-Punk London. "Bowie Nights at Billy's Club" was a weekly event in a small Soho venue, the brainchild of a young Steve Strange and Rusty Egan. The event quickly became the beating heart of a brand-new scene -- a refuge for disillusioned punks; suburban art school students; androgynous, subversive, creative kids; and (most importantly) Bowie fans, all competing for conspicuousness. Among them were the future stars of 1980s synth pop: Boy George, Marilyn, Simon Le Bon of Duran Duran, and a plethora of culture-defining individuals across fashion, film, and art. Bradley Rubenstein talks with Tyson about her paintings, her photography, and her recent forays into sculpture.
Tyson's work has been exhibited internationally and is included in major collections such as Museum of Modern Art, New York; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Whitney Museum of Art, New York; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; The Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C.; and Tate Modern, London; she was included in the recent exhibition The Nudes at Drawing Room, London, which closed November 29, 2014.
Bradley Rubenstein: Why don’t we catch up on some of the projects you're working on?
Nicola Tyson: I just exhibited drawings in a group show, The Nakeds, at Drawing Room in London. Recently I also exhibited an archive of color photos at Sadie Coles HQ in London titled Bowie Nights at Billy’s Club, London, 1978 (image top) that was first shown at White Columns last Fall as a White Room project. The images are presented as giant "contact sheets," digitally scanned from the original color negatives that I took when I was an 18-year-old student at Chelsea School of Art. They document the nascent London club scene, post-Punk, in the Fall of ‘78 and feature a crop of "gender–bending," soon-to-be celebrities of the 1980s, most notably a 17-year-old Boy George. Billy's Club was a seedy Soho gay club where we gathered every Tuesday to dress up and hang out to a soundtrack of everything from Sylvester to Kraftwerk.
BR: Punk was important. You caught the moment in these photos, where it turned into something else. Like you said before, it was a scene that wasn't about the music anymore; the music just became wallpaper for a scene. Did any of this have any latent effect on your later work?
NT: Crucially, Punk had rescued me from my gender-identity crisis in suburbia by introducing me incidentally to the city gay scene -- still fairly underground then too -- and enabling me to adopt a comfortably androgynous look. When I say "post-Punk," I mean that by 1978 punk had gone mainstream in the UK; the thrill and underground exclusivity were over. Most of us in the Billy's Club scene were still teens and too young to participate in Punk other than as under-age fans. We hankered for something more, new, and as exciting, and Bowie Nights were a start. What really began to develop at this point was a club scene, but to call us "club kids" in 1978 would have been anachronistic, as the notion didn't yet exist, and "clubbing" was not yet an end in itself.
The period I documented was just the first three months before the press caught on and the scene exploded. I dropped out at that point because sartorially I wasn't comfortable with this bizarre carnivalesque individualism -- that was a place I would later visit in painting. By the mid-eighties, club characters like Leigh Bowery had taken this dressing up to another level and transformed it into art. My work developed from a similar interest in totally reinventing the body; I just came at it from a different direction.
The scene was full-on color -- in opposition to the monochromatic punk aesthetic -- and so are my photos, which was unusual for that time. Most professional documentation, back then, was done in black and white, because the press rarely bought color photos and could only work with transparencies when they did. I see my painting palette in some of those photos now! I will begin working on a limited-edition book of the photos soon.
Back when I took those club photos, I was about to embark on a degree in graphic design, but I was thrown out by my second year for non-attendance. There wasn’t yet a thriving contemporary art scene in London. All the energy was still in music, fashion, and design in the early eighties. I freelanced as a reportage photographer for the music press and drifted, experimenting, in that peculiarly British, underground, unofficial art world (before the YBAs put London on the art map), finally returning to art school in ‘86 to study painting. But I’m now revisiting work I made in those intervening years, between art schools; I'm about to get some Super 8 films made back and then digitized, with a view to exhibiting them, reframed, in much the same spirit as the club photos. I'm known primarily as a painter, but in truth it’s only part of the story. I’m an artist in that old-fashioned sense, and one of the things I do is paint.
BR: We were talking earlier about letters you had published and how you saw them as a way of talking about your own work, without referring to it directly. It was interesting to see how the tone, or voice, of them changed over the course of a year. We published the Bacon letter back in Spring of 2011, but it was different when you read it publicly a year later. Much more feeling to it, I felt. Same with the others.
NT: The first letter, "Dear Man on the Street," was my contribution to Readykeulous: The Hurtful Healer, The Correspondence Issue at Invisible Exports here in New York City in February 2011. Artists were invited to contribute an open letter of complaint concerning something that irked them about "the world today" and particularly about patriarchy. Over the next couple of months I wrote a series of letters to a select group of famous dead artists: Picasso, Bacon, Manet, Gainsborough, Ensor, and Beckmann -- at first just for the amusement of friends, then you published some online, then I did a reading at Friedrich Petzel Gallery in May of 2011, and gradually it became an official art piece, originally titled "Letters to Artists and Other Men." I read them again at Petzel’s in October that same year, during my show, and then in 2012 at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects and Vox Populi in Philadelphia, at which point Sadie Coles suggested I create a book of the piece.
In these occasionally ranting missives, my concerns range widely; art (my own and that of others), sexual politics (contemporary and historical), and my own biography are addressed in an absurd, pointed, and playful exercise that seeks to create a mutable framework for locating and interpreting my own work -- yes -- without actually discussing it directly. References and puns ricochet back and forth within each letter, as well as between them, creating meaning and obfuscation by turns. I've always resisted explaining my own work, and this became a humorous way of investigating and describing the coordinates from which my working practice has evolved.
It's different when I read them aloud. I think it helps people get where I’m coming from. I've lived in the USA for 23 years now, so the humor is kind of mid-Atlantic!
BR: And you showed your first sculptures then too. I really liked the little swan pieces, the ones in clay and bronze.
NT: Actually they are made from Crayola Model Magic, a fast-drying modeling compound for kids. They are as light as meringues! It comes in 8-ounce pouches, so they are of identical volume, including the bronze version. That was cast from a piece I made some years ago, and I picked up the bird and swan motif again for this show. It's relaxing for me to work in 3D and get away from the line. Sometimes 2D is too claustrophobic. I'm also carving now --figures from logs, chunks of felled trees, of which I have stacks upstate.
BR: I like that specificity attached to the swan project -- you are limited by how much material you have. You managed to wring a great deal of empathy from those pieces. They relate to your paintings in the last show, with the little animal "familiars" in the scenes. That show was a huge leap, for me at least, in your work. You imparted a real sense of drama to the scenes.
NT: Oh, you mean the pigeon in Figure with Pigeon. Then there was Figure with Sphinx also. I guess they do represent familiars in some way. These paintings seemed to be an excursion into companionship of sorts. The images were sourced from a suite of sketchbook drawings, as usual -- single figures, one per page. However, it seemed necessary to pair them up with each other, not randomly, but in configurations of complementary tension and release. The drama comes from that tension. There's nothing going on in narrative terms between the figures. They are self-contained, locked into the painterly space, while at the same time being kind of highly animated. In that body of work there was less angst (for want of a better word) than in my earlier work. I found it just didn’t happen as soon as the figure had company. It became more about balancing out the energy between them -- bit like in "real life"! These were big canvases for me because I have a small studio. I work in my home upstate in a spare room. It got very crowded!
BR: I found that interesting -- that you were letting the viewer create the narrative, however unintentionally. You told me later about your process, creating the characters separately and then choosing and combining them on canvas. Whether they were interacting or not (especially when the two figures were humanoid), they shared the same picture plane, so the viewer can’t help but fill in the gaps of the space between them. I said earlier that I was struck by how different this show was from your past painting shows (for me), that suddenly you had these creatures inhabiting a shared space. It took it to a new level. There was a sense of theatricality, for lack of a better word. I didn’t read them as “real-life” relationships, but rather as some sort of artificial social construct; they became actors. I thought that this was loaded with psychological potential. The viewers projected their own stories onto them, as you left them blank enough to allow that. I think that when you say "angst" with regard to your past work, it might be a sense of isolation.
NT: That the figure be solo was vital, initially. I first started working this way—that is, painting figuratively -- in the mid-nineties. In those early pieces I felt like I was conjuring up some kind of libidinal presence. I called it "the painting body" -- a presence that was kind of latent in the canvas, that had to be captured. An image that was evasive, unwilling, almost unable to stay, already distorting into something else. I also felt quite reclusive at that time.
BR: You were also running a gallery at that time. How did that influence the painting?
NT: I came to New York in '89 and spent a couple of frustrating years making conceptual-type art that attempted to illustrate the compelling feminist theories I’d been studying at art school, and thus I completely suppressed an intuitive approach to art making. Additionally, I organized an alternative space (1991–94) called Trial Balloon, devoted with ironic shamelessness to women artists only, especially the emerging lesbian subculture of that time (Nicole Eisenman, for instance). It was a crazy, creative, drug-taking time in the early nineties, and a whole bunch of interesting women artists and writers got connected up there in those years. That unofficial DIY art world of project spaces -- mine and others -- is unrepresented in the NYC 1993 [NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star] exhibition currently up at the New Museum. A really important aspect of this time was that, briefly, it was an artist-driven instead of market-driven scene, with artists being discovered, curated, and given their first exposure by other artists.
However, I barely made any work during that time because the gallery was too much work already, and by the time I closed it and returned full-time to the studio, I had the overwhelming impulse to turn within and work in a completely "unguided" manner, informed but not directed by the feminism thinking I’d been exposed to as a student.
BR: Your work began as drawings. These are still where you cull your ideas from for the paintings. Can we talk a little about the whole process of how you turn them into paintings? You and I were talking earlier about how you saw the viewer projecting a lot of stuff into the images. Do you mean them to be read another way? I see a vein of storytelling in the paintings.
NT: I find the images initially through what can be described as intuitive free-associative drawing. Consequently the works on paper form a major part of my oeuvre. However, my desires and assorted neuroses register in the images, but they are not merely expressed; instead they’re used as source material in a kind of game of anarchic invention. I use the body as a sort of playground. I articulate and map it in unlikely ways because I inhabit it. The female body, art historically and culturally -- until relatively recently -- has of course been colonized, articulated, and misrepresented by men. So I guess I simply work from the inside out, as my body experiences, rather than merely observing and projecting onto. I experience my body as my psychological and physical "home," a place that determines how I experience, and am experienced, on many levels beyond mere appearance. How to describe that -- and indeed what "that" is -- became the issue for me, and not at some conceptual distance. I needed to just speak and literally see what I had to say -- begin to map that subjective void.
BR: You said last Fall that you weren't going to continue painting the same way for a while…
NT: Lately, I have begun working on a very small scale, painting fast with no preliminary drawing. The line, my line, had become restricting. Small because I’ve never had that kind of stamina or attention span to work in a sustained way on any one thing from start to finish and much prefer to work on a bunch of things at once -- a group of paintings, a bit it of sculpture, drawing, painting, collage, and a lot of staring into space! God I sound so prolific, and I'm so not! - Bradley Rubenstein
Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.