Keith Tyson: 52 Variables
In his new series 52 Variables, conceptual artist Keith Tyson will present 52 paintings of the backs of playing cards, exploring the operations of chance and the systems, random or otherwise, that govern human history. 52 Variables will be on view at Pace’s newest location, 510 West 25th Street, New York City, from December 10, 2010 through February 5, 2011. A catalogue will accompany the exhibition, and a public reception for the artist will be held on Thursday, December 9 from 6 to 8 p.m.
For this series, Tyson created mixed media on aluminum paintings of the backs of cards culled from 52 different decks. The source material is the artist’s own collection of joker cards gathered from all over the globe, spanning the past two centuries and ranging from a Twitter logo circa 2010 to a 1950s pinup girl. Though the backs of playing cards are meant to be neutral—empty signifiers whose meaning is filled in by the value on the front of the card—Tyson found that elements of society often leaked onto the imagery of card backs, situating them in a specific place and time by default, even when there was no intention for the original image to provide a window into a cultural moment. Displayed as a series, the 52 cards present a collage of recent human history, revealing snapshots of eras and locations.
“Looking back at two centuries worth of cards, I found that much of what’s repressed in society makes its way onto the backs of these cards in the form of advertising and imagery,” said Tyson. “I am fascinated by the discrepancy between something that is supposed to represent nothing—the negative space of the back of a playing card—and something that ends up crystallizing an entire historical moment. In the same way that a painting in a gallery will reflect emergent ideas in the society in which an artist pursues his work, so too will something like a playing card pick it up by default.”
The back of the card stands in not only for the variable on the front, but also for another type of variable: the place in time and society and in culture from which it emerges. The end result is a set of paintings based on a multilayered game of chance: each image is first dependent on the variable place and time in which each card was produced; then it is dependent on the card ending up in Tyson’s collection, which he formed from scouring eBay and trading with other aficionados; and finally, it depends on Tyson choosing that particular card for this particular series.
“I spent a lot of time looking at the back of playing cards,” said Tyson, a former card shark who famously won more money betting for himself to win the Turner Prize than the prize check itself. “The back of a card is meant to be neutral, decorative and full of potential—it’s the face side of the card that contains the variable that can complete a sequence and win the pot, or, of course, the variable that leads to a worthless hand. Whereas the most notable element of the back of a card is its essential similarity to the other cards in the deck, within this series each card becomes notable for its essential difference. The result is an explosion of diversity that imbues the back of each card with a significance that it usually does not have.”
In addition, some of the paintings end up carrying even further layers of meaning, with sly winks at linguistic signifiers that only reveal themselves to the initiated. For instance, one of the cards displays the American Airlines logo on its back; in gambling parlance, “American Airlines” means a pair of aces.
Many of Tyson’s previous series have also explored ideas of creation and chance, including his History Paintings, compositions comprised of 49 vertical strips of black, red or green, as determined by successive spins of a roulette wheel. The title for each work in the series included the site of a casino coupled with a date on which something notable occurred in that location (for instance, Baden Baden 1942 and Paris 1796). In bringing together time, geography and randomness, the History Paintings addressed the question of how the individual relates to, participates in, and attempts to make sense of historical events. Whereas classic “history paintings” depict dramatic, pivotal moments rich with human emotion, these suggest the random nature of human existence, as well as ideas of determinism and the limit of human control. Tyson’s 2008 exhibition Fractal Dice at Pace also explored how decision-making in the creative process can be surrendered and achieved by chance. The series featured sculptures created according to a predetermined dice-based algorithm that dictated the color, dimension and form of each work.
For 15 years, Keith Tyson (b. 1969, Ulverston, England), the 2002 Turner Prize recipient, has generated numerous bodies of work that explore the basic elements of creation and the interconnectedness of the cosmic order. The pathways by which an object or image are transformed into something we recognize as art is the artist’s singular pursuit. Issues of causality, randomness and interaction of forces have all served as Tyson's primary tools as he has created works as diverse as the Fractal Dice, History Paintings, Geno-Pheno Paintings, Large Field Array, Nature Paintings and the Art Machine iterations.
Keith Tyson’s work is in numerous museums and private collections worldwide. His paintings, drawings, and sculptures have been the subject of more than 20 solo exhibitions since 1995 and over 100 group shows since 1990. His work is held by important collections including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Tate Modern, London; Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; Foundation François Pinault, Paris; and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. In 2005, Tyson was commissioned to create site-specific works for the lobby of Chicago’s Hyatt Center, designed by Pei, Cobb, Freed and Partners. His two 40' x 10' abstract paintings, inspired by the 1977 Charles and Ray Eames film “The Powers of Ten,” address scale and complexity.
In addition to receiving the Turner Prize, Tyson received an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters from the University of Brighton (2005) and the ICA Arts and Innovation Award, London (1996). He studied at the Barrow-in-Furness College of Engineering (1984–1989) and the Carlisle College of Art (1989–90). He received his M.A. from the University of Brighton (1993). He is entering his second year as the Artist in Residence in the Department of Particle Astrophysics and Theoretical Cosmology at Oxford University.
For more information about Keith Tyson: 52 Variables, please contact the Public Relations department of The Pace Gallery at 212.421.8987. For general inquiries, please email firstname.lastname@example.org; for reproduction requests, email email@example.com.
Image Credits (left to right):
52 Variables (#35), 2010, mixed media on aluminum
52 Variables (#1), 2010, mixed media on aluminum
52 Variables (#23), 2010, mixed media on aluminum
52 Variables (#32), 2010, mixed media on aluminum
52 Variables (#43), 2010, mixed media on aluminum