Thursday, September 21, 2006

Luc Tuymans


Owen Drolet
Tsjombe, 2000. Oil on canvas, 73 x 108 cm.
Courtesy of David Zwirner, New York.


LIKE his fellow painter Gerhard Richter, utilizes found as well
as self-made photographic imagery, taking
a serious speculative interest in the endlessly intertwined relationships
between all forms of image making, from drawing and photography
to television and cinema, and ultimately to history, memory, and cognition itself.
Tuymans and Richter also share the premise that nothing seen can be believed,
dismantling with haste any old-fashioned notions you might
have had about the possibility of veracity.
But Richter, having come of age in the middle of the last century,
is a modernist at heart and therefore always strictly concerned
with the limitations of his medium.
Photography, however ingrained in his practice, still represents a challenge to

painting or, at the very least, an instrument with which to
further clarify its boundaries, and this is precisely why his technical
virtuosity can have such perverse charm.
Yes, we see that photographs, like other works of art, are composed forms
of rhetoric rather than factual' documents, but mostly he presents
us, over and over again, with dazzling displays of what painting can't do —
like early Frank Stella but figurative.
And the better he paints them, the more stunning the spectacle he creates,
the more poignant his endgame becomes.
Tropical Institute, 2003. Oil on canvas,
156 x 139 cm . Courtesy of David Zwirner, New York

With Tuymans we jump from endgame  to postgame wrap-up, a commentary on the
commentary and yet one freed from the
burdens of solipsism. What Richter repeatedly proves to us, Tuymans takes for
As a former filmmaker, he is clearly at ease with other media and has fully
assimilated their various rhetorical
Painting has no special place in his world and requires no defending or even
articulating. It is just a quiet
corner of the
densely populated media landscape, one that lies to us as regularly as our
These lies and omissions, however, are not examined through the prism of painting's particular
epistemology but rather are
the rhetorical nature of all speech.
Whereas Richter must be proficient and complex in order to show us the precise ways
in which painting (perhaps the oldest
form of complex cultural communication) fails, Tuymans uses a sort of false modesty
to allow us to see again how it can succeed — the
joke being that success and failure in this case are largely the same thing.
That paintings lie has been for Richter a fact of self-defining but glorious
In Tuymans' hands it becomes a humble acknowledgement of the medium's wider
relevance as history, memory, and
even ‘media memories' continue to merge in our lives into one big blur.
Dancing, 2003. Oil on canvas, 120 x 80 cm
Courtesy of Zeno X, Antwerp.
This is why we shouldn't expect or require an individual masterpiece from Tuymans.
The strength of the paintings is cumulative in effect, which is in keeping with our
media saturated times.
His is a project as much about its conceptual conceits and overriding thematic
concerns as it is about specific paintings.
Consider his work for the 2001 Venice Biennale and its confrontation with the
largely forgotten legacy of Belgian colonialism.
As individual works, the paintings' mysterious and ghostly images of Patrice
Lumumba and the men who colluded in his murder can
easily sink into an unsatisfying non sequitur, but viewed together their meaning
grows in comprehensibility without necessarily
restricting its scope.
It has long been derisively argued by many painters that simply hanging a
painting on a wall constitutes an installation, but Tuymans truly is
an installation artist, working with discrete hand-made props rather than the
usual readymade assemblages.
The result has been a series of exhibitions whose larger, quietly theatrical
dynamics reinforce those found within the individual
canvases as we turn our attention from one untrustworthy image to the next.
First and foremost, however, Tuymans remains a painter of mood.
The canvases are linked not only by their reduced palette of modulated grays
(the unofficial color of memory), but also by their uncanny
sensation of ill-defined dread that turns seemingly mundane circumstances into
enigmatically portentous scenarios.
This strange feeling, so difficult to pinpoint and therefore pleasantly at odds
with the more concept-driven aspects of his project, is
what, over time, has most distinguished the work.
When first encountered, the paintings can seem crude, inarticulate even, until
that unsettling sensation descends like a fog.
Soon, the simplest portrait or commonplace interior feels terribly freighted —
but with what? History? The burdens of representation itself?
So it would seem, though there is no way to know for sure.
All we can be certain of is that something isn't quite right, which leads us as
spectators to Tuyman's larger point: that nothing ever is.

Owen Drolet is a critic and writer based in New York.

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