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PRINT May/June 2020

BARE LIFE

Luc Tuymans, Bloodstains, 1993, oil on canvas, 22 5⁄8 × 18 3⁄4".

LUC TUYMANS’S BLOODSTAINS, 1993, is one of the Belgian artist’s more allover compositions. Purplish-red discs rimmed with vermilion float within a rectangular format, accompanied by a smattering of smaller black dots. Erratically spaced, these circular forms drift indifferently toward all four edges and are in places cropped by them. Look a bit longer, and the picture splits, roughly, along an imaginary line running diagonally from the lower left corner to the upper right. To one side of that demarcation, the spots swell with life—white highlights imply glossy membranes, and a few well-placed smears suggest viscous leaks from the two largest shapes. To the other side of the line, the same elements appear dull and flat, drained of physicality.

Based on an image of a microscope slide of a blood sample, Bloodstains is often likened to Tuymans’s major painting group of the preceding year, “Der diagnostische Blick” (The Diagnostic View, 1992). Composed of ten medium-size canvases whose images he sourced from a medical manual, that series proceeds from close-up views of faces to afflicted fragments of the body: a cancerous breast, eczema-ravaged legs. The final work in the cycle, Der diagnostische Blick X, portrays a patch of flesh with a malignant tumor: a brushy burgundy ovoid with an irregular aureole. Bloodstains alludes to this work in particular, reworking the malevolent form among its variously scattered and agglutinated cells.

In so doing, Bloodstains picks up where “Der diagnostiche Blick” leaves off, scaling up a substance from beneath the skin. Produced at the height of another public health emergency, the painting inevitably evokes the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Considered anew in 2020, however, it also conjures the predominantly digital imagery of the current crisis. One thinks of the now-ubiquitous “spiky blob” graphic designed by the CDC medical illustrators Alissa Eckert and Dan Higgins to represent the novel coronavirus, but the comparison is inexact. That model appears in extreme detail against a blackened field, a biological meteor in a cosmic void. Closer matches for Bloodstains can be found among another class of visuals: the Covid-19 case-incidence maps updated continuously on the websites of the New York Times and other major news outlets. Whereas the CDC graphic materializes a threat undetectable to the naked eye, the latter images track its inexorable spread through the collective. As of this writing, from my self-isolation in Baltimore, much of the United States’ mid-Atlantic region appears as one enormous aggregate of red dots. Readers are invited to zoom in and out.

The microscope on one hand, the interactive map on the other: These technologies have a crucial commonality. Each elides the finite body. Bloodstains dramatizes that passage toward abstraction, in the difference between upper left and lower right. The painting’s queasy materiality nonetheless keeps hold of the body in other ways. The red and black discs are clumsily constructed, the color unevenly spread. The field is even more visceral: Violet and blue, rose and yellow-green, this mottled ground is one continuous bruise. Here, too, Tuymans’s characteristic wet-on-wet handling is apparent, without registering as autographic in any conventional sense. Flatly applied and in many places horizontally stacked—notice, for example, the methodical brickwork in the upper left corner or in the bluish area right of center—the plainly visible brushstrokes encode the work of human hands while remaining largely mute. And then, of course, there is the quasi-photographic cropping. The blood cells may enlarge as we look at the painting, the artist has noted; they are nevertheless brutally sectioned by decidedly physical bounds. Plunging us into an impossibly close view, the painting never ceases to register as a delimited surface. 

Painting, like microscopy, is an affair of stains, bound to the contingencies of matter. This has always been true, from the ocher dots of the Chauvet Cave through the convex mirrors of Netherlandish painting and the repeating motifs of postwar abstraction. Bloodstains takes its place on this continuum, bringing us back yet again to the insurmountable fact of our own finitude. The current pandemic is laying our vulnerability bare, in numbers we can hardly fathom. Each loss remains wholly singular. 

Molly Warnock is the author of Simon Hantaï and the Reserves of Painting (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2020).