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The Shape of Things


OFFICE — How have your early experiences in London informed your work?


NICOLA TYSON — It was really lucky that I came up during the ‘70s when the punk thing happened in London. I had this gender identity crisis when I was a kid, partly because I wanted to be a boy—I didn’t actually want to be a boy, it just seemed like they had a better time. But punk was just brilliant in every way. The irreverent, rebellious thing appealed to me, but it was also very androgynous. You could dress in your shirts and ties and short hair and all that. It was also very connected to the gay scene in London. There was a lesbian club, in fact, where all the punk crowd used to go after hours, the Sex Pistols and Siouxsie Sioux and all those people—this was like 1977, ‘76. I was just a young teenager but my friends and I used to go. It was a very small scene at that point, crazy exciting and different from what the mainstream was doing.


When punk kind of went mainstream at the end of the ‘70s, it wasn’t this underground scene anymore. People that were left, mostly younger like me, wanted to develop a new scene to fill that void, that was when the whole New Romantic thing started. In 1978, I could use a proper professional camera. I took loads of photographs every week, color snaps, which were useless to the press, they couldn’t use color in those days. I was getting them processed at the pharmacy and bringing them back at the end of the week and selling them for beer money. It was young Boy George and all those people. There’ll be a book at some point.


But that whole dressing up thing was really important [to the New Romantics]. I liked the punk scene, but I didn’t like the dressing up thing. The big carnivalesque stuff. I was more classic, a simple girl. I eventually left the scene because I didn’t want to dress up. I photographed it all but I didn’t dress like that. I’m very straightforward. I’ve been wearing the same look since I’ve been seventeen. But it came out much later in my work, that sort of carnivalistic stuff came out in the weirdness of the figure and the reinvention of the body. There’s often weird bits of clothing on my figures. So I think that was definitely part of my development.


O — What brought you to New York in 1989?


NT — I met somebody and I came to live with her. I’d just graduated and decided it was a great idea for the kind of work I wanted to do. At that point, I was interested in sexual politics and was working a little bit conceptually. I was much more interested in the work that was going on here in New York at the time—all the stuff that was going on in the ‘80s with women artists. I ran a little project space for a while in the early ‘90s, Trial Balloon, just up the road from here.


O — What was the driving force behind Trial Balloon?


NT — The space was only for women. It was kind of a joke, kind of a rebellious thing. Like, “Fuck you, we’re only going to show women.” It wasn’t like twenty years before when it was a political separatist thing, and very hardcore that way. We were sort of punky. It was very brief, only about three years. A lot of the people showed there went on to be quite successful. I ran it with my partner at the time, Angela Lyras. Nicole Eisenman, who just won a MacArthur Genius Grant, had her first shows with us. There was a scene around that, we were kind of developing a lesbian subculture. The gay guys had already got it sort of worked out, but there wasn’t a defined lesbian subculture, artistically—but there were all these artists who wanted to talk about it. And London at that time, the end of the ‘80s was when that whole thing was starting up with Damien Hirst and YBA putting on their own shows. That’s partly why I came to New York, wanting to do a similar thing, starting a space and completely bypassing the whole gallery system.


O — Did you eventually move into the gallery system from there?


NT — At the space, I was showing my own work along with everyone else’s. That’s when Friedrich [Petzel] came by. He was just about to open his own gallery. A friend brought him over and he liked my work and took me on. The art world was much smaller and manageable then, it was still here in SoHo. It was still a kind of noble community, and then it exploded.


O — When did it explode?


NT — I think the ‘90s was the first shift, when everything moved over to Chelsea. And one more, over the last ten years, with all of the auctions and art fairs. Back in the early ‘90s, art fairs were just what dealers did to get to know each other. They weren’t a big deal. They were kind of like trade fairs where the dealers get together and exchange information about artists, but it didn’t become the massive thing it is now. It’s often more important than shows and galleries. There’s a million of them all the time. Nobody’s very happy about that. It’s just the way it is.


It’s like shows and galleries are barely relevant anymore. It’s this huge machine of auctions and art fairs. It’s become a place where people move money around. It’s really got nothing to do with art. At the high end of it, the super rich are just moving money around in these art objects. Just like real estate. At that level, it’s only to do with money, really. And the bottom end has been priced out. Because nobody can afford to live anywhere. Artists can’t afford to live in Manhattan—or Brooklyn, really—anymore. You don’t have this artist-up art world anymore.


O — You do so many things—sculpture, painting, drawing, writing, photography. Does each medium take on its own structure or is the creative process generally similar? 


NT — Well, some of them are more methodical— everything gets quite methodical once you’ve broken into it. Like writing, you know, you have to kind of get the idea going and then it’s just about keeping at it. You have to wait till it forms, and proceed. With painting and things like that—that’s actually why I’ve moved away from painting for the time—the process can be too slow. Although my work looks a bit expressive, painting-wise, the painting [process] is actually quite slow. I’m not furiously running at the canvas. I really got sick of two dimensions and trying to cram everything in, so that was the move away from painting and into sculpture. I’m making all this work out of found pieces of wood, giant life-size figures. It’s like finding one of my drawings in the pile of wood and then gradually assembling these figures so that they look like they’ve stepped out of one of my drawings. They’ll probably get shown in London next year at my gallery Sadie Coles, so that’ll be the beginning of a whole new body of work. I’ve been dying to make sculptures for years. The writing thing I do every now and again, usually just when someone asks me to do it. Last year I was asked to write a letter to Egon Schiele... 


I liked the punk scene, but I didn’t like the dressing up thing. The big carnivalesque stuff. I was more classic, a simple girl.

O — Yes, that letter. There’s one part where you mention the emptiness in the faces of Schiele’s female figures, but how he allowed all this emotion on his own. Are male artists really able to capture the interior of a woman or is it always kind of a hollow representation?


NT — That was the debate about him a little bit, because some people felt that he did speak for women and was able to represent female sexuality. But, of course, it wasn’t quite like that. It was still his desires projected onto them. You couldn’t say that he was speaking for their desires. So that was always a key part of my whole work. It’s embedded in my practice. Sorry—I hate words like “practice.” I’ve kind of always got this irreverent thing, I get a bit rebellious against that way of talking.


When I was growing up, I spent my childhood thinking I was a boy, and then I realized I was kind of gay, and then I got involved in the London gay scene very early on in the ‘70s. I never identified as a regular woman because I was not in that kind of social milieu, it just didn’t come up. I could just be who I wanted to be. It wasn’t until I went to art school and began reading feminist theory that I realized I was a female artist and wasn’t going to have the authority I thought I was going to have. Back then, of course. It’s better now, but I’m talking about the early ‘80s. My work became a lot about that. I realized I couldn’t just go ahead and become a great artist like the guys. I had to really analyze that. It was a huge revelation. You could see every way in which you were blocked. By reading all this feminist theory, I was able to spot what would be working against me, and then started making work about why I couldn’t make work, which is not really fun. It’s a trap that a lot of work fell into at that time, too theory-based. If you try to illustrate theory as an artist it’s kind of dead on arrival. So I moved away from all that and started to work completely intuitively and see what I could just come up with. The void about the female inner needed to be filled.


O — Did you notice when the obstacles you were presented with as a female artist in the ‘80s began to fall away and you were able to move forward?


NT — Gradually. It was really about artistic authority.You’re just not given any as a woman. If art’s this kind of secular religion, women still don’t have the authority of priests. And that translates into their value, as well, money-wise. Their word isn’t as valuable. It doesn’t matter how assholeic a male artist is, they’ll still have more artistic authority on some level. Not so much among the community they’re coming from, but in the collector community—not often a progressive community.


O — There’s a similar idea presented in your letter to Egon Schiele—this ‘Artist as God’ concept—where you mention Schiele’s statutory rape of a thirteen-year-old girl and his small time spent in jail...


NT — And then whining about how awful it was for him.


O — It seems similar to Roman Polanski or Woody Allen— how society will look past all of these horrible things.


N T — And then they complain about being persecuted. There are a lot of British TV personalities who’ve been busted over the last few years for molesting kids. Some of them are still whining about how they feel they’re being persecuted. And there are all these nameless women and boys whose lives have been messed up forever. There’s a sense of entitlement—which is one of the things women find hard to embrace themselves.


O — But if the world responds to that, is it maybe a skill that women need to cultivate even if it’s not necessarily the best quality?


NT — No. That’s the dilemma for women oftentimes—that they have to adopt a testosterone approach to things. Back in the early days, the ‘70s, you weren’t allowed to say that there was any difference between men and women. They wanted a level playing field. But, you know, there are differences. 


They’re just two different hormonal creatures. Now it’s moving into the continuum, and people are choosing where they want to be on that.


O — It’s nice that it’s opened up a bit. That there isn’t the expectation that everyone be exactly the same.


NT — No. That was unrealistic. It’s all about working to find some sort of happy medium.


O — Have you found yourself supported equally by male and female artists in your career?


NT — Yes. And professionally, too. Very early on I was working with Friedrich Petzel and Sadie [Coles] in London. We’re all sort of the same generation, though they’re a couple years younger. We came up together. There are problems that I know exist in other professions where people complain that women don’t help other women. I think maybe in the corporate world, but that world is hideous from the start, whether you’re a man or a woman.


O — When did you move up to Hudson?


NT — It was sort of an accident that I started staying there. It was a second home my partner and I had gotten, it was really run-down at the time. I had this loft in SoHo for ten years, where I had the gallery. The landlord was really sweet. They kept the rent down as best they could, but by ‘99, they told us we had to pay market price. That was such a huge leap that I went upstate temporarily and ended up staying there.


O — What’s your studio like?


NT — I like to live and work in the same space, I’m not one of these 9-to-5 people. I live on this old farm, I have a barn, three donkeys, a tractor, a chainsaw, all that shit. I do a lot of puttering about. I like to work a bit, do something else, work a bit, do something else—I need to break it up. Morning times I like to work best of all, and then also in the evening. In the afternoon I like to do something else. I don’t have a very big studio, it’s just an addition on the back of the house that’s always been there. It’s always been cramped but I like that. I did once have a giant studio that was in a nearby aircraft hangar, but I always ended up walking for miles trying to find the scissors.


O — I read a quote you once used—“This interests me, living dangerously.” What does that mean for your work?


NT — Well, that was in relationship to figurative art. Abstraction does seem like a safe kind of game. There’s a set of moves. You either do it really well or you don’t. It’s a defined thing by now, with certain moves you can make. But with any figurative or representational painting, there’s much more room for failing in many respects. I kind of like that risk. It can easily go wrong.


When I start drawing, I don’t know what I’m going draw. I get my head out of the way and start to get information coming through that’s uncensored. Weird things happen. I don’t contrive the images at all. It’s important to work fast to avoid the decision-making brain coming in to control things. It’s not the same as automatic drawing. It’s not about surrealism. It’s about getting an uncensored connection. – END


For information on Nicola Tyson’s upcoming drawing retrospective visit 

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