A mint-green boy lingers on a river’s lip with a bottle of milk. A rose-pink woman bends double on a bench, her hanging legs the tail of a pilcrow. A shop-front is coloured with deep rubs of green, red, blue, its vaulting windows opening onto darkness. In white, its signage reads: LIBIDOS. Why does the boy need calcium? Why does the woman bow? Whose passions lurk in the shadows?
Tal R has previously termed such painted fragments kolbojnik, a Yiddish word for the garbage bins that collect waste food at kibbutzim, and they litter his vast retrospective at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, ‘Academy of Tal R’. Amongst the two-storey shelves of canvases that ring the first room, we peep a showering woman, a cubist staircase leading nowhere and a mess of furniture blockading a room. Figures are reticent: they walk away, turn their backs, sit at a remove and ebb beneath roughly applied tints. We meet our mint boy, again and again.
On a long central wall hangs Habakuk (2017), a line of eight vast paintings of freight cars that visualize the process of interacting with Tal R’s works. We possess the cargo (the visual cues), but are untethered, lacking the frontal engine (or context) that would facilitate further discovery. This frustration finds form in a second room, where two large-scale paintings depict keyholes: through the first, obstinate blackness (Keyhole, 2016); the second, an elephant towering over a clown (Elephant Behind Clown Through Keyhole, 2009). These locks are mirrored in the shimmering reflections of a sun and a moon that vault over two seascapes: Sortedammen, in summer hues, and Sortedam, in twinkling blacks (both 2013). With the images once again refusing to divulge their significance (or lack thereof), we fall into a now familiar pattern: recognition to nothingness to self-directed creation – that is, uncut make-believe.
In the following room is House of Prince (2000–04), a rally of around 200 roughly-hewn experiments with geometric abstraction, the compositions of which were dictated by a set of rules formulated by the artist. Contrastingly, a congested fourth space is plunged into darkness and stalked by a mob of distorted sculptures, some kinetic, others stock-still: an insect flexing its limbs, a silver Jack-o'-lantern in a trainer, an orb of yellow tendons. Swan Lake (2016) sets dangling hunks of meaty pink material in rotation. As spotlights sling their ghoulish silhouettes onto the walls, these half-formed automata wheeze and clink, somehow fatigued by their very existence.
If the scenes in the first room were happy flashbacks, then these are their macabre counterparts: those grizzly spirits that rematerialize under the cloak of the darkness. This is exemplified by Deaf Institute (2017): 99 collages hanging within a narrow labyrinth, peppered with violent, libidinal iconography and nonsensical riddles: ‘TEETH MEAT’; ‘milky milky milky’; ‘NIGHT I CANT REMEMBER’. These assemblages revive the fable of the artist as a tragic (anti-)hero, lamenting as they do the Faustian deal that one strikes upon assuming the role of seer in a world that often wishes to remain unseen.
Art objects can be cruel, deceptive beasts; paintings, fiends who frequently conceal their earliest ambitions and assays beneath an impenetrable external layer. Annie Dillard is scrupulous: ‘A painting covers its tracks.’ Here, not so. For Tal R, painting is the tracks alone, a continuous supplement to life that might render everyday enigmas intelligible. To embrace the artist's own metaphor: painting is a colon: it always follows, and is always followed by, another. With this principle in place, we ask: the academy is? A well-constructed joke: an acknowledgement that art academies are well-intentioned miscalculations that attempt to freeze and formalize something forever in motion: a motion that, like life, is perennially remade, over and over and over again.
Main image: Tal R, Heavy Hair, 2002, (detail), oil, crayon, glitter, pencil and paper on linen, 2 x 2 m. Courtesy: Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebæk
‘Academy of Tal R’ is on view at Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, The Netherlands, until 21 January 2018