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Sense of Self

Petzel Gallery is pleased to present a solo exhibition of recent paintings by British-born artist Nicola Tyson. On view from September 2 to October 3, the show marks the second exhibition on the parlor floor of Petzel’s newly expanded Upper East Side gallery, located at 35 East 67th Street. This is Tyson’s tenth solo exhibition with Petzel, and her first show in New York since 2016.

Known primarily as a painter, Nicola Tyson has been working for over 30 years across a range of media including painting, photography, film, performance, and the written word. In the new paintings on view this fall, we encounter figures that relay a gender-fluidity typical of Tyson’s work, but now with a more emotional twist.

These new large-scale paintings were conceived and begun before New York’s lockdown due to COVID-19. Tyson temporarily abandoned the body of the work amidst the pandemic, and then returned to complete them over the summer months. As Tyson put it, “When the world suddenly stopped and the familiar cultural coordinates fell away — and with it ‘the argument’ — I was unnerved and found it difficult to paint.” Instead she turned to drawing, producing almost daily original graphite on paper works, and exhibiting over 50 of them on Petzel’s online exhibition platform, alongside time-lapse video footage documenting her drawing process. “The figures in Nicola Tyson’s drawings often seem haunted: elongated bodies, faces composed of blocky shapes filled in with dense pencil marks,” Jillian Steinhauer of The New York Times recently wrote when singling out her Instagram account as one to follow during these peculiar times.

Upon returning to the paintings over the summer, Tyson found that the center of gravity had shifted. What had begun as an exploration of relationship to another, refocused instead on relationship with self. Familiar territory for Tyson who has deployed methods of self-portraiture since the beginning of her career — exploring the inherent strangeness of our fictional self, the me, and the I, that is nevertheless one’s ‘home’. Tyson’s self-portraits are always easily identified by the red hair, “something that singled me out as ‘odd’ growing up,” she explained.


Nicola Tyson, Don't Look Back

Nicola Tyson

Don't Look Back


Acrylic on canvas

62 x 84 inches

157.5 x 213.4 cm

For Tyson, as for the Austrian master of self-portraiture, Maria Lassnig — humor and self-mockery are key. “Body awareness painting,” as Lassnig coined it, is the process of painting not how the body looks externally, but rather how it feels internally. Be it an emotion, human experience, gesture, or physical function, what exactly does it mean to be in a body and how can the experience be captured? Akin to this, Tyson notes that she is now interested in, “the self-portrait not as alienated self-examination, but as humorous proposition,” an investigation that is made central in this exhibition consisting of four giant, and at times absurd and somewhat inscrutable self-portraits – such as Big Yellow Self-Portrait and Self Portrait: Stripes (both 2020). “What is creative authority anyway” Tyson asks, “and who has it and why?”

Additionally on view, are two large canvases which describe the struggle for connection with one another: The Connect and The Disconnect (both 2020), and four explosive small canvases, Bouquets 1–4 (all 2020), in which the figure dissolves and reconstructs into four lively bouquets. ‘Sense’ here, refers to Tyson’s intuitive approach to image-making. As in her graphite drawings, the title and the explanation always come after the fact. The paintings begin life as drawings and the meaning emerges in the act of making the images. This is how her signature technique takes form.


Nicola Tyson, The Disconnect

Nicola Tyson

The Disconnect


Acrylic on canvas

72 x 100 inches

182.9 x 254 cm