Review – David Zwirner has recently moved into his first European location: a beautiful town house on 24 Grafton Street, and has put a gallery there. There are two floors which provide quite a lot of hanging space, and in a display of a form of effortless cool they currently house only ten paintings by contemporary Belgian artist Luc Tuymans.
Tuymans is “widely credited with having contributed to the revival of painting in the 1990s”, and although I always assumed painting has been alive and well, Tuymans certainly can paint. He works from existing images – film stills, photographs etc.- to make quietly reflective, meditative paintings which take pleasure in their being paintings and yet indicate some philosophical undercurrent – usually to do with memory and history.
In the 1980s he made a series concerning the Second World War; his 1986 painting ‘Gaskamer’ (Gas Chamber) being a good example of the quiet depth of Tuymans’ investigations. The painting itself is of an empty, whitewashed/cream room, with black forms on the ceiling only tentatively indicating the various nozzles through which the deadly gas came. It is the exact opposite of ‘Guernica’. It is a narrative painting with the narrative only implied in the picture, and supplied by the collective memories of the viewers.
David Zwirner offers us a series called ‘Allo!’, inspired by Joseph Conrad’s book ‘Heart of Darkness’ and the 1942 film ‘The Moon and Sixpence’, as well as a few other paintings by Tuymans. The two main inspirations for ‘Allo!’ concern types of colonialism, and in the case of ‘The Moon and Sixpence’ the Modernists’ “artistic colonialism” in taking “primitive” artwork and putting it to use for their own ends
‘The Moon and Sixpence’ is where Tuymans finds his existing images; the ‘Allo!’ series is composed of stills from it. It is roughly based on the life of Gauguin, featuring a stockbroker who leaves his job and family, moves to Tahiti, and becomes an artist – taking as his subject the local Tahitians as seen through the eyes of a Western ex-stockbroker. The other paintings include ‘Technicolour’ (2012) – a still life of a vase of flowers with colours that have the kind of luminescence you see in old neon signs or overexposed photographs – and ‘Peaches’ (2012), a still life of a stack of peaches with the same slightly sallowed glow.
The two floors of the gallery, and I’m not sure whether this is policy or not, are divided between the “good” ground floor and the “not-so-good” first floor. Most of the paintings from the series ‘Allo!’ are on the first floor. In the hands of a worse painter these first floor paintings would be bad; as they are they are average. The problems are basically twofold.
One is in the logic involved here, which simply seems to be that by adding a layer of “eyes” you are now “investigating” and “critiquing” rather than just reproducing the same Western-centric gaze. In these paintings we look at a (film about a) Western ex-stockbroker (, looking at Gauguin?,) looking at Tahitian women and “primitive” statuary. Tuymans then, in ‘Allo!’ V and VI, goes on to cut the stockbroker out and reproduces the stockbroker’s paintings and the statuary on their own from the film stills.
I don’t really see what the philosophical function of this re-creation is. We can already see the orientalism at work from the stockbroker/painter without Tuymans’ reproduction, and I fail to see how Tuymans’ reproducing it (even though at a distance, mediated by the Hollywood film,) “complicates a straightforward reading of the subject matter.” Going into the National Gallery and copying a Gauguin complicates nothing (even though it is mediated through the Western institution of it being in the National Gallery). We have narrative painting, attempting to critique its own narrative, but being unable to escape the techniques, the narrative itself, and the reasons why that same narrative should be critiqued.
Tuymans aligns himself – or can’t help but align himself – with the stockbroker/painter (actually, arguably he is lazier than the stockbroker/painter, who at least went to Tahiti to witness the Tahitians first hand rather than making images copied second-hand from already dubious images.) The perpetuation feels bigger than the questions it raises. There is no complication within the image, and “primitive” statues are still being appropriated to provide content and form for Western Art through treating them as “other”. The argument that we now know they are treated as “other” – thus complicating the thing – is both strong and pointless; overstating and over-relying on a kind of belief that the redemptive power of self-consciousness is universal. I.e. “if Tuymans knows he’s doing it then it’s fine”, when in reality it is only fine for Tuymans, in himself. The obnoxious person at a party who says “I’m being obnoxious, aren’t I?” is still obnoxious even if they feel buoyed by their knowing. (Tuymans is not obnoxious).
The second is to do with painting from film stills in general. Films are not composed frame by individual frame, but by the subtotal of these frames in succession. If you isolate a frame, the chances are it will not be the best static image. ‘Peaches’ and ‘Technicolor’ are also from films, but since they are inanimate objects anyway (against a dark background) you just end up with a still life. The problem is composition. With ‘Allo!’ III and IV in particular the frames contain the stockbroker/painter and his paintings, but the overall image we get is undesigned in pictorial terms. The resulting Tuymans painting therefore looks quite amateurishly thrown together. It is in effect a multi-figure painting that hasn’t paid enough attention to the problems of balancing and composing a multi-figure painting (which is, I am told, quite difficult).
The saving of these paintings, and the excellence in the others, is in Tuymans’ painterly technique itself which, actually, owes a lot to the Post-Impressionist artists (with whom Gauguin is grouped). ‘Peaches’ makes more than a passing nod to Cézanne’s still lives (particularly the Fitzwilliam Museum’s ‘Still-life with apples’), and ‘Allo!’ I (downstairs, and by far the best of the series) has simultaneously something of Matisse’s spritely, moving, female forms strung into a dance by the colour and fluid composition (although some of this is actually the stockbroker/artist’s doing), something of Cézanne’s Bathers, and (through the fully clothed, hat-wearing male contrasted with the nude females) Manet’s, ‘Le déjeuner sur l’herbe’ .
This, as well as not allowing his brushwork and search for form to exclude a careful use of colour – both for its own sake and for the sake of the drama of the picture. Tuymans makes frequent use of wet-on-wet paint, and the resulting careful tonal work in blues and mauves blended into greens is used to give the peaches their very signature glow. It is almost the same vibrance as found in Rothko’s Seagram pictures, but taken from being used (as by Rothko) for its own ends and applied on a much smaller scale – a brush’s width or two – for a specific effect. Tuymans manages to let each colour find vibrancy on its own, balanced between being a block of pure colour and being sacrificed for the overall tonal change.
This show does not feature Tuymans’ best work. It does, however, feature good painting. This is the good thing about painting. Even if conceptually the work here isn’t up to Tuymans’ standard there is always something engaging to look at. “You should not underestimate the public and try to be overly didactic which is always the problem with institutions, they force you to produce text after text”, he has said. “Art is not something you have to imply is political. Art is not political, life is political. Isms, such as modernism, post-modernism, etc, they’re just not applicable to the world we live in. The whole practice of painting is about two things: timing and precision.” The politics, didacticism, the wordly text, memory, are in the mind of the beholder. Tuymans, firing fully, has the best of it two ways: in the mind and the eye. An example is ‘Gaskamer’ (1986) – memory activated by art. ‘Allo!’ really only has his eye, but my God, what an eye!
*** 3 Stars Luc Tuymans, Allo!, David Zwirner London. 5th October- 17th November
Words by Jack Castle © Artlyst 2012