Deurle and Mechelen, Belgium

Narcisse Tordoir

Museum Dhondt-Dhaenens/Cultuurcentrum Mechelen

Narcisse Tordoir is one of Belgium’s best-kept secrets. Besides having taken a rather unusual artistic route, Tordoir has nurtured several generations of upcoming talent as a teacher and a curator, for instance through the milestone exhibition “Trouble Spot: Painting” at Museum van Hedenaagse kunst Antwerpen and New International Culture Centre in Antwerp, which he cocurated with Luc Tuymans in 1999. With a clever presentation, and mixing renowned names such as Marlene Dumas, John Currin, and Kerry James Marshall with younger artists, the show proved that the medium of painting was and would continue to be relevant. Since then, Tordoir has reinvented himself by using photography, performances, and film to question medium and personal style. With parallel exhibitions in Deurle and Mechelen, Belgium, and the recent release of The Way of the World, an impressive artist’s book, it suddenly seems as if Tordoir is everywhere and with such energy that, if one didn’t know that this was an artist who had been active for three decades, one might think his was the work of some brilliant young hotshot.

“Picture This” in Deurle displayed a series of overpainted photos all titled Unos á Otros (What One Does to Another), referring to Goya’s 1799 etching of that title (part of the famous series “Los Caprichos”). Goya’s print displays five elderly men performing a strange bullfight: Two of them act as the picadors, sitting on two others who play the horses, while the fifth plays the bull, teased with a lance by the so-called picadors. Goya turned this childish game into a satire: Today’s executioner can be tomorrow’s victim. With this etching as a model, Tordoir invited his son and some of his son’s friends to pose for tableaux vivants, which he documented in photographs and on film. Some of the photos were later overpainted by the artist; others formed the basis for drawings and large-scale paintings. The resulting exhibition was diverse in its subjects and eclectic in style, but, like the original etching, it managed to display an overall feeling of uncanny vitality and moral remonstration.

The show at the CC Mechelen, “The Way of the World,” was broader in scope. With thematically grouped works and through a range of media, Tordoir proved that his vision of the world remains sharper than ever. “Words,” one of the chapters in the show, consisted of documents, photos, a couple of canvases, and a free newspaper. Like one big puzzle, the ensemble showed how Tordoir operates by interpreting historical artworks in a radical, often cynical way, in this case making his own version of Allan Kaprow’s 1962 environment Words. A feigned conversation between Tordoir and Kaprow published in The Way of the World is hilariously perceptive. The American artist asks his Belgian colleague if “for you artistic activity is not about a final product? It is not about making more art?” Tordoir’s laconic answer: “No, the art world is omnipresent today and it markets its products. I prefer to see painting as a way of working.” “The Way of the World” was therefore less an exhibition than a project—not just a display of work in a museum but, in tandem with the book, a demonstration and explication of Tordoir’s ironic way of looking at and depicting his own version of art history.

Jos van den Bergh