A bleached, unfixed quality pervades many of Tyza Hart’s self-portraits, the dominant genre in which they work. A body—Tyza’s body, or a body Tyza has vested with their self—is there, but it is a body that seems to dwell somehow at the threshold of the visible, not static, but emergent. I first encountered Tyza’s work at the Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art in 2015. A tall, narrow oil on board showed the artist full length, head, hands and feet all delicately rendered, almost translucent, like opals. The rest of their body had been left blank, as if rubbed out or left unfinished. Floating around the perimeter of the figure was a thick, comparatively crude line which worked to insist on the body without offering any more information. In this painting the self was neither written nor unwritten, but rather seemed to be being written. This open syntax of gender and subjectivity has persisted for Tyza, but much of their recent work finds spatial and relational—rather than compositional and representational—means for articulating it.
Some years after seeing Tyza’s paintings at QAGOMA I started to get to know them, through lunchtime visits I would make to friends who both had studios in the same space as them. It was during this period that Tyza was making a number of bent ply works, in many ways sculptural in form but deriving from the context of expanded painting: though few of these works could be hung, they are fitted with d-rings on the verso. Each is primed white on one side, prepared for other marks that Tyza withholds. Scaled to their body these sculptural-paintings strike various poses: seated, bent double, bowed, prone. The quiet, playful, evocative presence of these forms—which take up space in much the same way that we do—bumps up against the blankness of their surface. Representation is eschewed in favour of a kind of surrogate presence.
This quality of presence is exactly what art historian Michael Fried objected to in the work of artists working within the logic of what we now call Minimalism. For him, encountering this kind of work the (embodied) viewer was exhorted to act in deference to it, to make room for and respond to its unreasonable demands. Fried’s paranoid position was that the presence of the Minimalist sculpture was aggressive in this way, characteristic of its anthropomorphism:
In fact, being distanced by such objects is not, I suggest, entirely unlike being distanced, or crowded, by the silent presence of another person; the experience of coming upon literalist objects unexpectedly – for example, in somewhat darkened rooms—can be strongly, if momentarily, disquieting in just this way.(1)
For Fried, the meeting of viewer and sculpture that Minimalist (‘literalist’) art manifests is uncomfortable, even threatening. Tyza’s bent ply works leverage exactly this dynamic of encounter, but in scale and lightness of form, neutralise the potential for it to be disquieting. In fact, Tyza plays up their anthropomorphism through their agility and variety. Against the hard, machined forms of Minimalism these works are nimble, unassuming.
The dynamic, relational encounter that Minimalism taught us has been illuminated through recourse to Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology. Central is the idea that the embodied, perceiving subject becomes a system with the object world, so that the perceived or encountered object forms as much as it is formed by the presence and movement of the body in space and time: ‘[the] sensible gives back to me what I had lent to it, but I received it from the sensible in the first place.’(2) The embodied viewer’s understanding of their own place in the world, their own subjectivity, coexists with the material world; both come into being at the interplay between the two, evincing a live, open but local relationality as the basis for thinking the self. Art, which intensifies the material world, can help us recognise this.
More recently still, Tyza has been working with long stretches of loose fabric, often painting them with bleach. The application of delicate, broken lines is characteristic of earlier paintings, but, they told me, they wanted to paint bodies on something that could go on the body. The enveloping scale and installation of these works also means that they function to articulate interior spaces. At the Museum of Brisbane Floating Near the River 2019 ran the stretch of a hallway; to see it, the viewer walked its length. In Inside Sky, a new exhibition at Milani’s Carpark Gallery, Tyza has radicalised this strategy. Sky Recline 2021 is a single, dyed fabric work spanning eighteen meters of slow, lyrical transitions from gold, to pink, to a spectrum of purples, to grey, to blue. It begins in the gallery’s low, cramped entrance and snakes through the bunker-like spaces. To navigate the exhibition the viewer is at times subject to near proximity with the material, guided through the spaces it remakes via a continuity of partitions. Fried would be appalled, but the work, which shifts and ripples in response to the movement of bodies, is intimate and welcoming, not threatening. Its compression of the space between the viewer and the work of art makes acute the experience of contingency Merleau-Ponty elucidates.
Two other fabric pieces are included in the exhibition, each inscribed with a thick, blunt line recalling that haloed outline of the first self-portrait of Tyza’s I saw in 2015. In one of the works a pale hand floats towards the broad iridescent stroke, either reaching into a crevasse or making one: a remarkably simple icon of contact that acts as a sign for the viewer’s own interactivity with the work.
In the second room, Sky Recline forms a bulbous loop, before exiting in a straight line to the third where it divides the space in two. Reaching the end of the work, the second, larger chamber opens out to reveal three stoneware sculptures on a low, fixed concrete shelf. They are small, not tiny, the size of a water pitcher, or vase, and they read as domestic objects, things we use and touch with our hands. But each disturbs the promise of functionality with strange, sparing accoutrements—here a spout, a hole; there a hole, a bulb. Self Sip 2021 is particularly beguiling. It brings to mind some of the most potent works of the 20th century: in its domesticity and eroticism Méret Oppenheim’s Object (Le Déjeuner en fourrure) 1936; in its ambiguous corporeality and the pale austerity of its surface, Louise Bourgeois’ porcelain and marble sculptures, Janus 1968-77 and Cumul I 1969. Self Sip is a kind of return, it turns towards itself. The classical form of an urn is unsettled by a cylindrical protrusion which extends from the lip of the vessel and loops back into it as if, per its title, to sip. The self’s mutability is signaled through its role as both sipper and sipped. Without feeling final, coming to these suggestive stoneware sculptures in Inside Sky is like an arrival. Set out like offerings, they seem to be waiting for us.