Luc Tuymans

Galerie Erika + Otto Friedrich

Luc Tuymans has painted a discarded apple so that the side with the bite taken out of it is balanced on a gray line—the horizon. It is seen from an almost unreal perspective, as if under a magnifying glass, and one becomes uncertain whether it is a skull, an atomic cloud, or something else. The image comes from a photograph found in a police archive that shows an apple dropped by a perpetrator at the scene of a murder. From the indentation, the physiognomy of the murderer could be reconstructed, and, thus, he was apprehended.

When one has been sensitized to this macabre aspect, one can feel it again in the other paintings shown here. They are modest in size and painted with pale, dry colors. The surface is made of thin paper that though stretched remains wavy. The subjects come mostly from daily life: a bowl, a stack of wood, a flower, a pair of gloves, a series of buttons. Are they buttons or eyes? Or are they objects from the archives of a Nazi doctor who had categorized and placed body parts in individual drawers? In another work Tuymans uses an image from a “Wanted” poster as the model for the triptych Missing Person, 1993. Given this context, the flower in another painting appears to be a brutally amputated, drained image that could have been taken from ’70s wallpaper—it brings to mind the connection between esthetics and violence.

Tuymans knows about the availability of images, and at the same time he builds on the history of European painting. Consider the breathless silence of a Netherlandish still life, the dark, reductive scenarios of a Velázquez, or the dissonant color spaces in an El Greco. Tuymans as a painter returns not to spectacular images, but to unworked ones in which collective and private traumas overlap. Through repetition, they lose some of their emotional charge and transcend the personal.

Tuymans’ faded colors and the fragile newsprint that he paints on seem to stand for the relativity of remembrance: it becomes evident that remembering is also an active process. Contours and details are filled with emotion. Tuymans’ works are almost antithetical to Gerhard Richter’s. Richter presents himself as master of all things, or at least a master of painting. Lack of focus always comes from the photographic model; it is never the result of blurry perception. Tuymans is more careful. His images present a frozen reality in contrast to which painting seems like a failure; they occupy an inner, spiritual plane, but only for a limited time. In a way, the viewer is like a shadow boxer between the paintings, wondering how strongly their presence is forced on him.

Claudia Jolles

Translated from the German by Charles V. Miller.