Luc Tuymans Dares Painting to Lose

Luc Tuymans, Issei Sagawa, 2014.
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Luc Tuymans does not shy away from controversy. For his new exhibition at David Zwirner in London, for example, one of his paintings is a portrait of Issei Sagawa, who killed and ate part of the body of a classmate, Renée Hartevelt, at the Sorbonne in 1981. But the backstory is less horrific than the painting itself. Working from a photograph (Tuymans often does, even taking images from his smartphone that he then re-photographs, as if to out-do Richard Prince), the artist has turned a would-be cannibal into an emaciated skull, a head in a pith helmet. The murderer has, in turn, been killed by painting.

Tuymans is a Belgian artist widely seen as one of the most important painters working today, acclaimed for his style, for his taking-on of political subjects, and for having “rescued” painting from the dustbin of history. And yet, as Public Enemy once said, don’t believe the hype. There is no bigger lie in the artworld today than the beleaguered state of painting (or representational painting, to be more exact). As if the world was rife with wannabe Hans Haackes and Kara Walkers, foisting Marxist conceptualism on unwilling collectors and gallery-goers. As if there was not a continual presence in postwar and contemporary art of the Jasper Johns, the Ad Reinhardts, the David Salles and Gerhard Richters. The truth is, painting is doing just fine. And surely a crowded gallery on a Thursday night in London’s posh Mayfair district is a good indicator of just how healthy painting is. Hundreds of art lovers, young and old, rich and art-student-poor, crushed into two floors to see Tuymans’s ten latest works.

Here three of the portraits are based on photographs Tuymans took of works by Scottish painter Henry Raeburn; others reproduce wallpaper, a Mike Kelley installation, a scene from a film. That is, the paintings want us to think about what a painting is. What does it mean to paint from a photograph, for instance? Then, how can painting represent the horrors of civilization? This is key to what Tuymans’s work argues, in its fascination with Nazi history (his portrait of Himmler, 1997-98), Belgian colonialism (in this show, The Shore, 2014), the neoliberal present (a notorious portrait of Condoleeza Rice, The Secretary of State, 2005) or tabloid kitsch (the aforementioned Issei Sagawa).

First of all, the technique of working from photography or re-photography allows Tuymans to outsource composition, the picture plane, and indeed realism. Just as, in our era, all paintings are digital photographs (for that’s how most of us see most paintings), with Tuymans, photographs are rendered into oil, as if their very veracity must itself be blurred, smudged, and rendered a material problem.

There are three consequences of this method. First are the legal questions, as surfaced last month when a Belgian court delivered a verdict on Tuymans’s use of a newspaper photograph (by Katrijn Van Giel) as source for a painting of local politician Jean-Marie Dedecker. Now, as Ian Higgins points out, and contra a sensationalist online report, Tuymans was neither convicted nor charged with plagiarism: but if the case was disquieting for any artists who work with found material, it was perhaps more reassuring to artists whose work is, in turn, appropriated.

A second effect of Tuymans’s method is how it’s used by critics to give credence to lesser artists. Thus when former U.S. president George Bush exhibited his paintings, derived from Google images of world leaders, New York Times art critic Roberta Smith argued that they “resemble paintings by Luc Tuymans (a well-known Belgian artist who, like Mr. Bush, works from photographs).” Smith’s mistake – and that of the Times, which ran the story on its front page – is to think that the non-cognoscenti, titillated by the idea of an ex-president-turned-Sunday painter, will be all the more impressed by this name-dropping. (More impressive was the sight of a Tuymans catalogue in the Netflix series House of Cards).

The most important consequence of working from photography is how it allows the abstractions of the photographic plane to further distort painting. This is most apparent in The Shore, the title painting of this exhibition, and which depicts a scene from the film A Twist of Sand immediately before a wartime massacre. In the exceedingly wide painting, perhaps ten figures are before us, barely visible, as bleached-out articles of clothing. A shirt, or shorts, a dress, what could be a tuxedo shirt, overalls. The figure to the right – is it a ghost, presaging their death? We do not know.

This is surely Tuymans’s point: even the apparent veracity of film, or photography, in its reliance on light and chemicals and bytes, on flattening and rendering black and white, changes the lived world (or the dying world) into yet more images.

There’s also the question of light. In the gallery’s press package, “the cool light of digital screens” is mentioned, but of course the light in these paintings has to do something other than rely on the screen for its light. In a painting, light comes from white paint, and may signify reflected light (as in The Shore), or refracted light. This last kind of light is what seems to be on display in The Fireplace, and that’s what is so puzzling about the painting: how can a brick or stone fireplace be glowing? Or is the light here, too, reflected: is this a fireplace that has been lit as in a film? Learning that the fireplace is simply a maquette from a Mike Kelley installation does not help.

Tuymans is perhaps most accomplished as a portrait artist. His painting of Condaleeza Rice, which Jerry Saltz begrudgingly called “a modern Mona Lisa,” is notable both for its tight composition but also for the details of its process. In a collection of interviews with Tuymans published by his gallery, we see images of the website on which Rice’s photograph first appears, and Tuymans’s Polaroid of same. In that intermediary image, the Polaroid, the right side of Rice’s face is almost washed out – by the flash, perhaps, bouncing off the computer monitor. The website becomes a Polaroid becomes a painting. So a picture that at one point is part of a grid or image bank, then, in Tuymans’s hands, becomes properly historical: now we can examine the face of power.

Indeed, looking back at Tuymans’s career, we can see that his portraits have veered between the tight close-up and the pulled-back shot in which figures can barely be distinguished: compare Secretary of State to Panel (2010), a painting from Tuymans’s Corporate series, in which four figures sit, like luminous after-images, in a white pool of light. Panel’s figures are anonymous (although we are told they include Tuymans and other artists and artworld bureaucrats), bleached-out, and spatially isolated.

So, too, is it instructive to compare Issei Sagawa to The Shore. In the first painting, we have an emaciated, cadaverous face or skull. The edges or lines of the face are mottled, blurred, as if the oil painting were a gouache. The painting may be gleeful or grim, but the scrambled contours also suggest that just as representation does not know what to do with the face of a murderer or a cannibal, neither does our society: incarceration or mental health care? Scapegoating or execution? Celebrity or ignominy? We waver in our appraisal socially as well individually (whether the victim’s family, or the perpetrator’s). We turn away or we gawk. Or we do both.

Issei Sagawa is a portrait of an individual murderer, and in The Shore we have a collective portrait of victims. Unlike the tight close-up, now we have a long shot (and a long painting, over six feet high and eleven feet wide), with fairly small figures. The point of view is that of – whom? A cameraman, if this is taken from a film, who is then a stand-in for the artist (or the other way around). But also – the murderer (in the 1968 film the image is taken from, A Twist of Sand, a submarine captain who machine-guns Africans on the shore). But what does Tuymans’s dialectic of extreme, cropped images and distance shots mean? Cropped tells us something right there. That is, this has partly to do with his mediated paintings – the way they rely on prior imagery that itself is cut, framed, reduced. Whether by photo editors and cinematographers (for press or film images), the frame of technological devices like smart phones, or the frame of the interface (as when, for example, Tuymans shoots Polaroids from a website). Then, the long shot, as with The Shore, is about composition in terms of giving us figures in isolation. If Issei Sagawa’s purpose (or effect) is forensic, The Shore’s is sociological. Look at these victims. They are alone. We have abandoned them. Our gaze is, as William Rothman said of Hitchcock, a murderous gaze.

But is this too neat? Is it not possible that if Tuymans is transfixed by the evils of the Bush regime or colonialism or a cannibal, we should not automatically transfer that affect to the social as a whole? Perhaps, rather, the very indistinguishability of images in his paintings means we should not so quickly deliver up a political allegory, one that avoids the formal difficulties in his work, as well as the ethical problems of social evils.

It’s not as if Luc Tuymans doesn’t have a sense of humor. A few years ago, when he gave a talk in Vancouver, he was asked by artist Mark Soo what Tuymans’s wife thought of his work. Well, she was educated by Jesuits, Tuymans said, and she’s a biologist, so I don’t have a chance. By this we can take Tuymans to mean that faced with cunning logic, and science, painting will always lose.

We are not so sure.

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