Still Still Without Buffalo Bill: Tyler K. Ormsby "Casual Markings" @ House of Seiko, San Francisco
It takes a little time to like these, but that’s what should happen. Good art can’t always be got at first glance. Standing with Tyler K. Ormsby’s four paintings for a few minutes, at first I recalled how one Philadelphia critic reacted to Winslow Homer in 1878, noticing “two qualities not often combined: an appreciation of rugged natural character, with poetic refinement. It is not easy to be blinded to his defects,” the critic continues, “there are plenty of them. He does not know enough about either light or color. I imagine to myself, knowing nothing whatever about it, that he suffers for lack of a thorough technical bringing up… He is possessed by his idea and puts upon the canvas, in spite of his materials, the feeling he would convey; but they resist him, they yield sullenly, they do not aid him with their felicities.”
Like I said, at first glance, they’re hard to get into: seeming barbarously simple (to quote Henry James, also on Homer), strangely imbalanced, and elegiac in some way that is personal to the artist but perhaps not evident to the audience. One first feels as if they’ve walked in on someone journaling, that the paintings of the lozenge-like floating flip-flops (there are two of them, crowding one corner of the gallery) have some meaning for Tyler that risks being lost on us.
But then, look closely at the abraded surfaces, like tattered griptape covered with oily chalk, with layers of color that hum underneath in lucid intensity. Ormsby channels Clyfford Still without it feeling, as many Stills do, like they belong in some ponyhide-bedecked interior outside of Denver. Still Still without Buffalo Bill, you could say, and in the place of tattered clouds and scorched desert you have the purple heath on the hillside, sea vapor, and Pacifica’s sublime fog. Over time, the logic of Logan Roy’s axiom from Succession makes sense, “nothing is a line. Everything, everywhere, is always moving forever. Get used to it.”
What happens is supposed to happen with any well-crafted painting: the surface disappears and you walk into it. And I realized that what I first objected to, what took me a while to get, was that these paintings aren’t slick. They don’t adhere to the app-inflected flat illustration style that so many other Bay Area painters commonly suffer from. You know what I’m talking about, the kind of paintings that show two dimensional figures in plant-filled interiors with art books stacked so that we can see the spines, taste-tagged so that everyone gets that the artist like Matisse and Hockney or whatever. The sort of paintings that make you feel like you’re about to apply for a predatory housing loan on your phone and that you’ll never get out of debt in your lifetime.
Tyler Ormsby’s paintings resist that synthetic experience of reality by a rugged dismissal of smooth surfaces, seeking instead an imbalanced harmony built out of his own daily rituals.
But I have to say: it all clicked with the surfer painting. Sometimes you need that lynchpin piece that you didn’t know was missing, quietly holding everything else in suspension. When Cole Solinger, the director of House of Seiko, brought that painting out, it all made sense. Smaller than the other four, it is a tight, straightforward annunciation of what the show is about: the needle-head prick that opens your eyes to the salient qualities of Ormsby’s oeuvre. What first felt disorienting about his work, the way forms crowd the right side of his canvases, suggestive of organic things (is this a dried stump that I’m looking at, or just a shape) all of the sudden unlocked, ceasing to yield (of course it is). You start to realize that the anchors of each painting (shoes, a woman on the beach, the dead tree) are pregnant with meaning for all of us, not just the artist: some forms float, others disintegrate, flickering then gone. And then you get that it’s always about something else. You may recognize the surfer, the board, you may marvel at the textured turquoise and tattered pinks, how they read as cold and at the same time electric, but it’s not about surfing. It’s about those moments of disintegration and stasis that happen when we look away from our phones and experience actual life. They are invitations to float with the artist through vapor, to smell the heath, and to feel the wet sand on our feet, recognizing that our only constant is our impermanence. Good paintings invoke those things you already know but sometimes need art to recognize –impermanence-- and that’s what makes these paintings good.
Ormsby’s materials do not resist him, and this exquisite show is irresistible.
Text by Theodore Barrow // The show is on view at House of Seiko through May 6, 2023