Explorations > Press Release : 52 Variables

Press Release : 52 Variables

For this series, Tyson created mixed media on aluminum paintings of the backs of cards culled from 52 different decks. The source material is the artist’s own collection of joker cards gathered from all over the globe, spanning the past two centuries and ranging from a Twitter logo circa 2010 to a 1950s pinup girl. Though the backs of playing cards are meant to be neutral—empty signifiers whose meaning is filled in by the value on the front of the card—Tyson found that elements of society often leaked onto the imagery of card backs, situating them in a specific place and time by default, even when there was no intention for the original image to provide a window into a cultural moment. Displayed as a series, the 52 cards present a collage of recent human history, revealing snapshots of eras and locations.

“Looking back at two centuries worth of cards, I found that much of what’s repressed in society makes its way onto the backs of these cards in the form of advertising and imagery,” said Tyson. “I am fascinated by the discrepancy between something that is supposed to represent nothing—the negative space of the back of a playing card—and something that ends up crystallizing an entire historical moment. In the same way that a painting in a gallery will reflect emergent ideas in the society in which an artist pursues his work, so too will something like a playing card pick it up by default.”

The back of the card stands in not only for the variable on the front, but also for another type of variable: the place in time and society and in culture from which it emerges. The end result is a set of paintings based on a multilayered game of chance: each image is first dependent on the variable place and time in which each card was produced; then it is dependent on the card ending up in Tyson’s collection, which he formed from scouring eBay and trading with other aficionados; and finally, it depends on Tyson choosing that particular card for this particular series.

“I spent a lot of time looking at the back of playing cards,” said Tyson, a former card shark who famously won more money betting for himself to win the Turner Prize than the prize check itself. “The back of a card is meant to be neutral, decorative and full of potential—it’s the face side of the card that contains the variable that can complete a sequence and win the pot, or, of course, the variable that leads to a worthless hand. Whereas the most notable element of the back of a card is its essential similarity to the other cards in the deck, within this series each card becomes notable for its essential difference. The result is an explosion of diversity that imbues the back of each card with a significance that it usually does not have.”

In addition, some of the paintings end up carrying even further layers of meaning, with sly winks at linguistic signifiers that only reveal themselves to the initiated. For instance, one of the cards displays the American Airlines logo on its back; in gambling parlance, “American Airlines” means a pair of aces.


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