By now Luc Tuymans’ painterly style is instantly recognizable and widely imitated. Since the late 1970s, he has painted – with incredible consistency – from photographic sources to create flattened, indirect views in a muted, melancholic palette, as if we are seeing the world through a smudged window. Illusionism is sacrificed for superficial impressions; realism for obfuscation. At the same time he delves into subject matter (the Holocaust, Belgian colonialism) that instantly imbues his work with gravitas. No subject is too taboo or complex to be the target of Tuymans’ paintings.
BOZAR, the final stop after a four-city American tour of ‘Retrospective’, co-curated by Madeleine Grynsztejn and Helen Molesworth, opened with a smattering of the Belgian artist’s strikingly modest and intimate earlier canvases, whose subject matter is often difficult to pin down. Insomnia (1988), a rare work that might allude to an interior psychological state, comprises two ill-defined orbs and a faint smudge on a taupe ground. But further access to the picture is blocked. The series ‘Der diagnostische Blick’ (The Diagnostic View, 1992), which Tuymans based on photographs in a physician’s diagnostic guide, comprises two unremarkable, anonymous portraits and several close-ups of skin irritations or other bodily abnormalities. As viewers, we lack the specialized medical knowledge to tell whether we are looking at harmless eczema or a fatal tumour; Tuymans keeps the details of these conditions, as he does with much of his subject matter, beyond the reach of our interpretive capabilities.
The exhibition’s chronological progression revealed how this retreat from interpretation becomes even more pronounced and willful over time. In series such as ‘At Random’ (1994) this comes across as a frustrating conceptual manoeuvre to make works whose titles are as crucial to our understanding of the paintings as their surfaces. Der Architekt (The Architect, 1997) marked a turning point toward more overtly political content. Working from what looks like an innocuous, candid vacation snapshot of a skier fallen in the snow, Tuymans obscures the figure’s face with a white oval that denies us from knowing whether he or she is laughing sheepishly or crying out in pain. Der Architekt takes an incidental moment – the kind that a snapshot captures best – and with minimal painterly means transforms it into something perniciously sinister (what Tuymans is after in every picture, to varying degrees of success). Indeed, the painting (as, again, only the wall text could reveal) is modelled after a moment snapped from a home movie of Albert Speer, but in this case its haunting aura emanates from the work itself, rather than a reliance on this contextual detail.
Der Architekt served as a bridge to a second phase of the show, where three of Tuymans’ most monumental exhibitions were recreated almost in their entirety. Here the canvases underwent a marked increase in size and an even grander leap in themes: the Holocaust (in ‘Der Architekt’, originally shown in Berlin in 1998); Belgian colonialism (in ‘Mwana Kitoko: Beautiful White Man’, Belgian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, 2001); and post-9/11 America (‘Proper’, David Zwirner, New York, 2005). But displaying these groups of works in consecutive rooms and outside their original contexts deflated their impact and, crucially, exposed the problematic nature of Tuymans’ sweeping gaze. He repeatedly casts himself as the artistic spokesperson for previously ‘unspeakable’ subjects, each time with the same approach: a mixture of obvious, clichéd imagery and more oblique red herrings. The paintings in ‘Mwana Kitoko’, for instance, overtly engage with stereotypes of Africa – a sculpture of a shirtless tribesman, a leopard skin rug, a rhino in a museum display – which are assembled among portraits of the Belgian colonial leader of the Congo and the first democratically elected prime minister, who was assassinated. But rendering these clichéd images in the same visually ambivalent style doesn’t transform them enough to make them seem less stereotypical or offensive. Instead, it seems that Tuymans is too self-consciously pushing the boundaries of what a painted image, or art in general, can or can’t represent. In ‘Proper’, which takes on American imperialism, he presents a closely-cropped and banal portrait of the embattled first female African-American Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice (The Secretary of State, 2005), painted after a TV still, in the same fashion in which Tuymans represented a KKK leader in his earlier work, The Heritage VI (1996). The portrait provides neither a haunting revelation nor a strong indictment of its subject. This strategy of trying to be subversive while relying on the most obviously provocative subjects became predictable and hackneyed across several rooms. I half-expected to see a portrait of a schoolboy that turns out to be Adolf Hitler, or a painted snapshot of a horse that belongs to George W. Bush.
‘My aim is to confront indifference,’ Tuymans has said. But his painterly stance – rendering every subject with the same flatness and same tasteful pastel palette – only confronts indifference with ambivalence. The political and societal conditions he asks us to diagnose in his paintings are some of the most complex, but he doesn’t provide us with enough tools to analyze either these political issues or his stance toward them. The works themselves are too reticent or vague to provide anything other than half-baked evidence. Instead, what became most apparent in this exhibition is the gradual progression of his project toward the grandiose, and Tuymans’ own desire to write his paintings into history.