Our society has made seemingly everything into an object, but nothing more so than the human being itself. It’s a daunting task to try to conform to the expectations imposed by social norms that are so ingrained they can be internalized. Tyler Spurgeon explores the theme in his exhibition Deficient at Nox Contemporary gallery. Using painting—an instrument of objectification by its very nature—to examine the subject is a double-edged palette knife.
But then, Spurgeon attacks the subject on two fronts: through paintings of hanging meat, and abstracted human forms. It isn’t surprising that while studying at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he completed his Bachelor of Fine Arts in 2007, he would find himself in front of Francis Bacon’s “Figure With Meat” at the SAIC museum, transfixed by the legendary painting. A number of Chicago artists influenced him, but it might be slightly ironic that, in a town historically known for its stockyards, a British artist’s depiction of Pope Innocent X with sides of beef was one that really stuck in his mind.
At SAIC, he found that, “As young artists, we knew we weren’t just competing with each other; we were competing with the artists on those walls.” He also realized that a sense of lofty expectation was built into even the pursuit of art. He recently completed his Master of Fine Arts at the University of Utah, and this is his first solo show, though he has shown in Chicago, New York City and Seattle.
Spurgeon’s works in oil have a relationship with each other, in that they cause you to look at figures of meat and human figures with a kind of equivalence in the course of viewing the show. It’s about consumption: Meat is valued because of its food value, and the human is given importance in an objectified sense because of a utilitarian value, even if it’s a social kind of utility. Very subtly, it’s a look at the way we consume images without resorting to faddish technological references, but more elementally, implicating the viewer as witness to its aftermath. Spurgeon finds this objectification “a form of violence.”
The work in Deficient combines two of his recent bodies of work. The Meat series precedes his most recent Pressure series, and he says it “initiates the concept of the individual as something to grade or consume at will.” The Pressure series, he maintains, builds on this with “a more representational exploration of how pressure, oppression and other influences impact the individual. It’s personal and experiential, whereas the Meat series is cold and detached.”
The figures have been abstracted to where they are not far removed from becoming mere shapes, but that doesn’t make them imprecise; rather, it adds to the impact of the statement they make. The outstretched limbs of the figures echo the contours of the meat, tissues stretched out as the slabs hang from hooks, the bone structure providing the compositional lines, and the reddish hues implying the blood-splattered walls of a slaughterhouse. But these figures are in repose—an odd kind of still life, as if the act of violence has already occurred. Viewing them is still a shock to the eye, and more so because of the detachment.
The abstracted human forms express a sense of anxiety, in tension with the environment of their backgrounds. The rough physicality of his brush strokes, together with the sometimes-harsh contrast in colors, make some of these works uncomfortable to look at. The figure in “Newton,” which Spurgeon says is a “self-portrait” of sorts, is bracing back against some kind of strain, off-balance. “It captures the moment somewhere between defiance and giving in completely,” he explains. Like in Francis Bacon’s work, there is a deeper, psychological level to these paintings.
“Hadrons” and “Mesons” are two works in which blurring the distinction between figure and background, individual and society, plays out in a more dynamic form. “Often the bodies and the background merge with each other, fighting for representation, for a place, for identity,” Spurgeon says. “I still don’t know who or what wins in some of them.” Thus the artist’s very intentionality is at stake in these paintings; he isn’t directing their development or guiding the paint under his will so much as he’s discovering the course they will take, or even arriving at a place of mystery where their meanings are ambiguous.
In creating artworks that aren’t easily accessible to the viewer, Spurgeon may have discovered more creative freedom for himself. “In previous bodies, I have used science fiction and other elements as a facade or artifice,” he recalls. “This recent work removes those barriers, letting the work be more vulnerable and honest.”
TYLER SPURGEON: DEFICIENT
440 S. 400 West, Suite H
Through Nov. 5: Free