Chicago

Luc Tuymans

There is scarcely a genre of painting that Luc Tuymans does not appropriate and turn inside out. “Superstition,” a selection of his work from 1985 to the present, included 20 smallish canvases that ranged from portraits to painterly abstractions, from landscapes to interiors, to hard-edged pattern paintings, cityscapes, figure paintings, still lifes, nudes, and serial images, all infused with Tuymans’ curious ability to remain simultaneously detached and engaged. The multiplicity of pictorial effects and narratives is mesmerizing. In plumbing the rhetoric of painting, Tuymans finds all its strategies at once full of possibilities and largely emptied of meaning; this indeterminacy is not a reflection of ennui but of the artist’s clinical and sober autopsy of painting’s corpse.

Take, for example, Gas Chamber, 1986. This small canvas, barely covered with a washy and monochromatic coat of sepia, depicts a limpid room divorced from its former ghastly function. Tuymans is not attempting to drain his subject of meaning, rather his target seems to be the immodest pretensions of art, the incredible hubris, to bend a phrase from Adorno, of making paintings after the Holocaust. Body, 1990, is another seemingly carelessly painted image—a truncated, tan, puppetlike figure with a long slash running across most of its midriff. The intimation of violence in this work, its evocation of the fragility of the body, is tempered by Tuymans’ pictorial composition and distanced handling of paint. There is always the sense that these are memory images: Tuymans’ long-after-the-fact recountings of perceptions, now mediated by time, thought, and contemplation. The act of painting, always reduced to a discreet minimum, gives these images the quality of souvenirs, remembrances of things past imbued with an understanding of the incredible ambiguities that surround what they represent and the act of representation itself. Illusion can quickly become disillusion in this artist’s work, and as Tuymans makes his way through the touchstones of painting’s canon he presents its many failures as rather touchingly awkward, as clumsy efforts to create a discourse where perhaps silence should reign.

Tuymans, however, is not indulging in repetitive and nihilistic conclusions about art’s efficacy. His tour of painting eschews facile ironies, recognizing that it is a form so deeply rooted in our collective psyche that even the act of shaking it up can, paradoxically, reaffirm it. His shuffling of the coordinates, his elastic attitude toward the relationship between artist, subject, and viewer moves beyond critique to remark on the significance of the limitations of art, collapsing painting’s parameters in ways that both disrupt and engage our models of communication. What Tuymans continually addresses is the slippage between perception, experience, and the construct of art, thereby linking the “problem of painting” to the larger dilemma of creating meaning from modern existence.

James Yood