Keith Tyson: The sum of all possible paths

Mark Rappolt in conversation with Keith Tyson
TYSON96995 - Entropy

Keith Tyson, Entropy, 2016–19 © Keith Tyson

Drawing on a wide range of influences ranging from mathematics and science through to poetry and mythology, Keith Tyson has become known for a highly diverse body of work that includes drawing, painting, installation and sculpture. Ahead of his exhibition of new paintings at Hauser & Wirth London entitled ‘Life Still’, the artist sat down with ArtReview Editor-in-Chief Mark Rappolt to talk about adopting still life painting to directly engage the contemporary world we all inhabit.

Mark Rappolt: You’ve been painting flowers.

Keith Tyson: Two dozen. I love how stories emerge in each one. ‘The Stolen Child’ (2018–19), for example, is based on the W.B. Yeats’s poem. So there’s a part that’s Irish myth about fairies leading people astray, but I was also remembering how Arthur C. Clark used to say that a technology sufficiently advanced would be indistinguishable from magic. So the painting includes these mesmerist conjuror’s hands and zaps, which are from old Nikola Tesla adverts. You’ve got electricity, technology and magic, and the mythology around it. Plus narcissists, social media, beach bodies and selfies – I’m trying to build a modern-day fairy tale. Each painting is a kind of filter on the world, so you can see it as an anthropologist would or a mathematician or a scientist or whatever. But I don’t approach the paintings thinking ‘this one is going to be that’. They just emerge from the practice of painting flowers.

MR: Are you very strict about your practice?

KT: My world ends if I don’t have a routine. A practice is process orientated, it’s not result orientated. I used to work with a lot of assistants and then decided to get rid of them all. The problem was that I couldn’t commune with the work. It sounds really corny, but I have to listen to what the work wants to be, I have to genuinely live that process. You’re not depicting something, or making a kind of signifier or whatever they write in press releases. It’s somewhere between poetry, painting, a religious practice and a defense mechanism. It’s the hyper-embrace of it all. That’s really hard to sustain because it’s human nature to collapse into certainty: you want to be able to say what you’re doing.

TYSON96991 - The Stolen Child
Keith Tyson, The Stolen Child, 2018–19 © Keith Tyson
Keith Tyson, Still Life with Vectors, 2019 © Keith Tyson

MR: You talked about stories earlier, do you think that your works are also born of a secret urge to write? Many of them include notes and texts, both in the new paintings and in works from, say, the ‘Studio Wall Drawings’ (1997–) series.

KT: Always. I think I’m quite chippy about that because I left school without any qualifications, my grammar isn’t terrific and I have a working-class northern accent. But I think the construction of my shows at that level and the premise of them is a type of theatre. Here’s an argument for what a show is and here’s a story that I’m telling. But then there’s also this really curious thing about plastic arts and novels: you can write novels with an unreliable narrator or a dissenting voice that you don’t agree with and everyone is really happy to say that this is fiction; if I paint 12 swastikas on canvas and put them on a wall I am going to struggle. I can say what I want about it being fiction but we have this belief that the plastic arts are real and that the written word isn’t. Really there’s a lot of slippage between everything: that’s what the creative sphere is, that’s what the universe is. It’s this creative quanta which is interpreted by particular points of view, all of which are equally valid. The sum of all possible paths is reality.

It’s seeing the flowers each time with new eyes, because, really, as human beings we are constantly shifting.

MR: So why pick flowers as the path for this show?

KT: They are paintings of flowers, but they are also paintings of the differences between one painting and the next.

MR: So painting is the subject?

KT: Yes, and the flowers are the excuse by which the paintings come into being. But, saying that, flowers are quite nice for several reasons. Flower arranging puts together all these blooms from different environments, just for aesthetic reasons. I’ve put together different styles of painting, different methodologies of thinking – mathematics, mythology and so on – in the same way, also just for aesthetics: to let things emerge from the process. In that sense, the process of making the work has been very ‘horticultural’.

TYSON96990 - Procedurally Generated ROse
Keith Tyson, Procedurally Generated Rose, 2019 © Keith Tyson

MR: You normally arrange your work in series or around a particular theme.

KT: I always like having a unit to work with, as with previous works like the ‘Studio Wall Drawings’ (1997–) and ‘Large Field Array’ (2006). The problem for me has always been how do you get an individual work to preserve the context of its variations, because ultimately my work is about both the infinite and the possibilities of the specific. Hopefully, although there is a little bit of kitsch flower-indulgence, there is a super wide range in terms of what has been selected.

MR: But here you’re taking on what many would describe as an archaic form.

KT: The question for me was always ‘How would I approach still life today?’ If you think about Dutch still lifes, they’re produced in a context where people are surrounded by this brand new stuff from the new world –exotic plants, huge wealth, a new merchant class and the political and religious cosmology that surrounds it – and they’re making artworks that absorb it. Today we are decentralized nodal things, we live in an information age, so how would I approach making still life? ‘Procedurally Generated Rose’ (2019) is the most restricted: it’s generated by putting an equation into a graphic calculator. If you tighten the equation it forms a mathematical structure that looks a bit like a peony. And then if you subject that to a series of filters and link it to a picture of a rose you end up with the image, which I then painted without interpretation. It’s completely automated other than me working out the maths. At the other end of the spectrum you have ‘Entropy’ (2016–19), which is the palette I was using for the last three years painted over and over. Within it you see the accident of certain flowers emerging. So we can see a flower as a mathematically generated thing; as the passage from low to high entropy in the universe; or we could see it as a romantic symbol. It’s seeing the flowers each time with new eyes, because, really, as human beings we are constantly shifting.

TYSON96992 - Just 2 Hours in the Whole of Time and Space
Keith Tyson, Just 2 Hours in the Whole of Time and Space, 2019 © Keith Tyson
Keith Tyson, Entropy (detail), 2016–19 © Keith Tyson

MR: Your signature is constantly shifting in these new works too.

KT: For the first time there is a little bit of autobiography in there. I was called Keith Bower until I was around seven. Then my mother remarried, to a guy who was not the nicest chap on earth. But the main thing was that I didn’t get to see my dad, I didn’t follow the path I was going to follow, I was ripped up from one location and put into another location, and then put into a different economic, social group, from the country to a town. So the relationship to a consistent sense of self is autobiographically grounded, in that I have never really been able to have that. I don’t even recognize my own name, because it came to me as something alien. And Bower is just as alien to me. So for me the signatures are more of a causal signifier. They speak about what’s necessary to bring the work into being. You can claim your intention does that, but there are also the laws of physics – light, mass and acceleration. ‘Entropy’ is signed with the entropy equation.

MR: A psychiatrist would have a field day with this…

KT: For sure! But that’s fine, it’s just another filter. My thing has always been that paint is a programmable material: if you charge it with chemical reactions, you get one thing, if you imbue it with political activism it will end up being another thing, if you allow your subconscious to get wrapped up in it, it’s something else. That’s the interesting point: that it is partially subjective, partially objective. I want it to be as expansive as possible.

MR:  But I can imagine that it might be easier to market work that has one particular style.

KT: Yes, I have had a lot of rolling eyes. But this kind of work seems to me to be most aligned to who we are. You’re not an intellectual 24 hours a day – you’re also watching a soap opera, you’re a sexual being and, when the bus hits you, you’re just a lump of matter. Each is true.

It is partially subjective, partially objective. I want it to be as expansive as possible.

MR: You quote a lot, not just from art history, but also from different cultural histories – there are many references to Chinese and Japanese culture in the new works.

KT: I think if all things are equal then they are all up for grabs. I learnt that from the Artmachine Iterations [works made during the 1990s according to instructions generated by a combination of computer programs and flow charts]. The machine came up with some pretty dodgy ideas and I remember getting into the philosophic ethics of it – if you set yourself a dice-man project, do you follow through? When do the ethics come in and censor it? Particularly if I want something emergent to appear.

MR: But it is not like you don’t make choices.

KT: Obviously: there are 24 specific paintings in the show. But the argument of whether it’s a process of free will or not… I don’t judge that. I’m a player – like a director or a cinematographer – I’m not arrogant enough to think that I’m the founding singularity of the works. But I want an honestly emergent thing to appear.

MR: But how do you measure the honesty of it?

KT: You never can. It’s like meditation: if you try too hard you’re not doing it. And so yet set yourself specifics. And then you edit the symphony of how the group sits. Is it diverse enough? Is it too weighted towards one thing? Does it portray the essence of what you think interesting art practice is?

MR: What makes a work of art interesting?

KT: My own or somebody else’s?

MR: Is there a difference?

KT: Yes, because when you’re making your own you’re close to it and watching the process and you don’t get the pure surprise of the thing. So for me, when I feel my painting is somebody else’s, I think I must have achieved something.

‘Keith Tyson. Life Still’ is on view at Hauser & Wirth London from 22 May – 7 September 2019.