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Luc Tuymans: Don't take his images at face value

The Belgian artist shakes up notions of portraiture in particular and painting in general. He wants you to see with your brain.

March 14, 2010|By CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | Art Critic

The second picture that is suitable for long White House contemplation is blandly titled "The Secretary of State." Painted almost a decade later than "The Heritage VI," it's a closely cropped portrait of Condoleezza Rice. It is also shocking in its utter drabness, given the immediately recognizable subject. Blotches of watery brown puddle in the corners of her eyes. Rice squints and scowls, a few teeth glimpsed between slightly parted lips, in a pose that seems instantly familiar from countless news images that showed her standing in the blazing Texas sunlight behind President George W. Bush.

Here she, not he, is the focus of attention. But to what end is not immediately apparent. Instead, we're invited to contemplate the sheer, unadulterated weirdness of her history and role on the recent international stage. A pictorially bland "official portrait" this is not.

Jointly organized with Ohio's Wexner Center, where it had its debut in the fall, the show is a thorough introduction to a major artist not much seen on the West Coast. Tuymans was born and raised in Antwerp, where he still lives, and he studied art there and in Brussels. He abruptly quit painting in 1982 as the melodramatic steamroller of Neo-Expressionism plowed first across Europe and then the United States, and he picked up a Super-8 movie camera instead. When he returned to oil painting in 1988, his work was informed by what he had learned from framing scenes in the viewfinder and editing moving pictures for context and duration. Several painting projects in the retrospective were conceived as suites -- multiple canvases that hang together as virtual outtakes from extended narratives.

Along with bodily disease (which to the artist seems as much about painting's bodily infirmity as it is about a person's), inhumanity is a common theme. Works articulate aspects of the ghastly Nazi epoch, Belgium's grim colonial adventures in Africa's Congo and America's surrender to fear and superpower grandiosity during the Bush administration. (In a bizarre 2005 riff that evokes " Dancing With the Stars," a twisted and archaic ballroom couple swirls across a dance floor adorned with the state seal of Texas, a star ringed by a triumphant wreath of oak and olive leaves.)

Like his Antwerp ancestor, the Baroque painter and international diplomat Peter Paul Rubens, Tuymans casts a sharp eye on political preening and power. But who but Tuymans could evoke such modern awfulness in a floral still-life painting -- a sexualized close-up of a blooming orchid, painted dusky green and bilious brown, at once lovely, seductive, intimidating and finally repulsive?

The most immediate precedent for Tuymans' paintings is Gerhard Richter, the German master of blurred photographic fragmentation and post-Warhol pictorial distance, both figurative and abstract. Richter painted his devastating and ambiguous suite of 15 paintings of German domestic terrorists, the Baader-Meinhof gang, in 1988, the year Tuymans put down his movie camera and picked up a brush again.

But the tone of Tuymans' work is completely different, the crepuscular grubbiness of abasement substituting for Richter's sleek sense of epic tragedy. New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl was dead-right to note that Tuymans' "grayish daubs announce that [art's] war against mass media" is over, because it is truly lost.

In its place Tuymans injects an inescapable assertion of radical doubt, which infects the reception of both mass media images and art images, including his own. It's a strange position for an artist to take in relation to what he does, but ultimately it's convincing. Tuymans' paintings show that he knows what he's doing as he does it, but that what happens after he's done is up to you.

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