This large painting by the British artist Nicola Tyson depicts a feminine form shown upside down against a light blue background. The figure’s pink head appears in the bottom of the canvas and its arms are outstretched either side of its black body, creating the impression that it is floating. The proportions of the body are distorted: the head is bulbous and too large for the otherwise slim and elegant torso, legs and arms. These, too, do not appear naturalistic: the figure’s legs taper into a single point near the top of the canvas and its arms are plant-like and seem to wave fluidly. The blue background is flat, but also mottled as if it presents an area of water as seen from above on which a faint sunlight is shining. Although seemingly calm and directionless in its movements, the black form contrasts deeply with its paler background and it stretches the full height of the canvas, appearing confined by the painting’s upper and lower edges.
Swimmer was made in 1995 in New York, the city to which Tyson moved from London in 1990. To make the work, Tyson began by priming the canvas with a white ground onto which the outline of the figure was then laid down in charcoal lines that are still visible at the figure’s edges. Although the paint has been applied to the canvas thinly, with no impasto, the broad brushmarks making up the background contrast with the even application and glossier finish of the paint used for the figure, giving variety to the canvas’s surface. For the swimmer’s body, Tyson has created highlights using grey paint and by abrading the darker pigment in places to reveal the white priming underneath.
The work’s title suggests that the figure can be seen in the context of swimming and bathing, with the shape either moving through or floating in water. Yet it remains unclear whether the subject is male or female, or human or animal, an ambiguity that is enhanced by the form’s inverted position and the lack of reference points in the scene’s featureless background. Despite this, as Vincent Katz noted in a review of the artist’s work in 1998, ‘although Tyson takes great liberties with anatomical definition, limbs and heads have an uncanny realism in their gestures and even their shapes’ (Katz 1998, p.98). In this way, Tyson’s forms tend to outline or indicate rather than describe, as can be seen in this work and in the later Curtain Figure 1999 (Tate T12599).
Although ambiguous, this figure’s shape hints at femininity: it has a petite, hourglass-like form, which tapers in at the waist and then out again into curvaceous hips. The soft, flowing outlines of its body add to this sense of femininity, yet the figure’s bulbous head is more androgynous and counterbalances the slightness of the rest of the form. Many of Tyson’s works of the 1990s contain androgynous figures that she has manipulated beyond gender identification or those that hint at the feminine without stating it clearly, as is also seen in Curtain Figure, in which limbs emerge from behind a dress-like curtain of fabric and a series of brown lines protrude from the top, suggesting a woman’s head of hair. In a review of a solo exhibition of Tyson’s work held at the Friedrich Petzel Gallery, New York, in 1995, the art critic Keith Seward observed that ‘perhaps the obdurate individuality of these figures, defined not by particularised faces, as in traditional portraiture, but by singular combinations of vegetal torsos, insectoid legs and monstrous genitalia, reflects a deliberate attempt to unleash the power of the freakish – to go beyond genders, classes, categories’ (Seward 1995, p.107). As well as Tyson’s tendency to distort the identity of her subjects, reviews of her exhibitions in the mid- to late 1990s also foreground their sensuality, making reference to the ‘vulva-like spirit’ of her figures (Saltz 1994, p.118), an observation that could be applied to the organic, fleshy form seen in Swimmer.
Swimmer was exhibited as part of Tyson’s first solo exhibition, held at the Anthony d’Offay Gallery in London in 1995.
Jerry Saltz, ‘Nicola Tyson at Trial Balloon’, Art in America, May 1994, pp.118–19.
Keith Seward, ‘Nicola Tyson. Friedrich Petzel Gallery’, Artforum, Summer 1995, pp.106–7.
Vincent Katz, ‘Nicola Tyson at Friedrich Petzel’, Art in America, January 1998, pp.98–9.
Supported by Christie’s.