New York

Luc Tuymans

David Zwirner | 519 West 19th Street

BELGIUM WAS HARDLY one of the more ambitious forces of nineteenth-century Western colonialism. Compared with the British, Spanish, Dutch, and French, Belgians entered the land-grab race rather late: King Leopold II didn't think to seize the Congo until the late 1870s. All the same, the country's colonial rule was notorious: The scope of Leopold's empire may have been modest, but his policies and those of his successors were among the most repressive in Africa.

Luc Tuymans's recent show of paintings, “Mwana Kitoko,” focused not on the origins of his homeland's imperialism but on a moment during its demise: the '50s under King Baudouin, coronated in 1950 at age nineteen after his father was forced to abdicate (due to bad behavior during World War 11). The Congolese called Baudouin “Mwana Kitoko” (“beautiful boy”), a pejorative nickname that his handlers quickly changed to “Bwana Kitoko,” or “beautiful, noble man.”

Painted from film and photographic source material shot mostly during the young king's four-week “triumphal procession” through the Congo in 1955, the nine works on view (all 2000) at first seemed unconnected. Only one, Mwana Kitoko, featured Baudouin himself, dressed in milrtary whites and clutching an ornamental sword as he steps from his plane onto the tarmac in Léopoldville. (Another shows his shod feet and a pair of Ahcan hands near a leopard skin, the Congolese red carpet that welcomed the king.) But the discontinuity of Tuymans's narrative well serves his complex subject: the nebulous distinction between the “end” of colonial rule and the “beginning” of Congolese independence. Belgium continued to exert its power after 1960, supporting certain leaders and rejecting others (notably Patrice Hemery Lumumba, the Congo's first prime minister, who was assassinated while in police custody in 1961, very likely with US and Belgian aid). Léopoldville shows a high-rise office building with Belgian and Congolese flags hanging from its facade; The Mission features an anonymous, bunkerlike, whitewashed Christian church.

Tuymans's debt to Gerhard Richter is often noted, but whereas the latter's paintings are virtuoso re-creations of (out-of- focus) photographs, Tuymans uses painting to selectively emphasize or erase visual information. In Mwana Kitoko, Baudouin's face has almost no detail; in the almost monochromatic Lumumba, the revolutionary's eyes and face are carefully rendered to suggest intelligence and resolve, while his suit and tie, signifiers of the white Western world, are barely sketched in. Reconstruction, a vague green landscape with several unidentified cars, hints at the suspicious circumstances of Lumuba's death. Chalk is a near abstraction of two hands holding yellow stubs of chalk-symbols for gold-capped teeth, reportedly the only parts of Lumumba that were saved before his body was dropped into a barrel of sulfuric acid.

Certainly Tuymans employs the same ingredients that Richter does: photography, painting, and history. But the way the Belgian artist presents each work as a patch of evidence to be stitched into a fragmentary but incriminating narrative and treats photography as secondary to the already debunked illusionism of painting shows that he's finding his own way, not only as a painter but as a chronicler of his nation's troubled history.

Martha Schwendener