"There is really very little that is visible in the format of a picture. The value of thinking in terms of a crossroads or pictorial intersection is that if not all that much is visible, then what little there is ought to involve vital trajectories and points of collision and encounter between a variety of cultural, formal, or figural systems." (M. Tansey, Mark Tansey: Visions and Revisions, New York, 1992, p. 132).
Study for Columbus Discovers Spain provides an archetypal example of the visual and intellectual crossroads that characterize much of Mark Tansey's work. In this painting we are presented with a variety of historical and contemporary references that combine in a uniquely 'Tanseyian' way to produce a work that is rich, intriguing and visually intricate, all painted in the artist's exceptionally detailed style.
Following in the noble tradition of maritime painting, Tansey joins the long-standing art historical practice of paintings of ships and their dramatic narratives of turbulent weather or heroic naval expeditions. However, in the present work Tansey does not present Columbus's heroic galleon, the Santa Maria, as triumphantly arriving in the 'promised land' with its sails, flags and pennants flying proudly in the wind. Instead the ship appears dejected, its remains, bearing sagging, wind-torn, almost deflated masts. The implications are of a journey gone terribly wrong. This sense of unease is then reinforced by the artist's inclusion of the rungs of a swimming pool ladder that are strategically placed in the upper right portion of the painting, leading us to question our original assumptions about what kind of reality Tansey is trying to reproduce. The inclusion of the swimming pool rungs further confuses the scene. Where an ocean is vast and seemingly infinite, a swimming pool is contained and controlled. Tansey has created a world within a world - a tempest in a teapot. The inclusion of the swimming pool could be construed as Tansey's response to the so-called progress America has made since it was first discovered by Columbus hundreds of years ago. As an icon of conspicuous consumption and materiality, the swimming pool has become the ultimate status symbol for many American families. By combining these two highly emotive symbols together in one work, Study for Columbus Discovers Spain becomes to question the nature of American progress.
Study for Columbus Discovers Spain also sees Tansey wrestling with the essential problem inherent in representational painting. Not merely reproducing or illustrating the real, Tansey searches for a modus vivende, for the disparate interpretive trajectories exploded by paint on canvas, "In my work, I'm searching for pictorial functions that are based on the idea that the painted picture knows itself to be metaphorical, rhetorical, transformational, fictional. I'm not doing pictures of things that actually exist in the world. The narratives never actually occurred. In contrast to the assertion of one reality, my work investigates how different realities interact and abrade. And the understanding is that the abrasions start within the medium itself" (Tansey, quoted in A.C. Danto, Mark Tansey: Visions and Revisions, C. Sweet (ed.), New York, 1992, p. 132).
In the Study for Columbus Discovers Spain, cultural references, historical and contemporary associations, aggregate within a grisaille overlay. Drawing from his archive of clippings from a variety of sources, Tansey manipulates until a medley of images results -- as here in Study for Columbus Discovers Spain. What is visible collides with references, ideas, and systems that are not present-the experience of the work is its own metaphor. The painting's power is created by juxtapositions and paradox -- a perilous looking ship careers towards a dark, ominous whirlpool but the presence of swimming pool rungs introduces another, much more interesting narrative to the work. In the riveting intellectual arena of which Tansey is the maestro, the medium and the message are at each other's throats, meaning is fragmented and disrupted, nothing and everything is exactly as it seems.