Friday, October 8, 2010

Luc Tuymans at the Museum of Contemporary Art

Critical response to the paintings of Luc Tuymans has fallen into three areas of concern.

First, and often foremost, is the historical subject matter. Why have right-wing Europeans (and Americans) done such terrible things? (Holocaust, Imperialism, colonialism, racism), and what should we think about them? Second, are issues of image, perception, and memory. What are the limits of memory and image recognition? Third, come issues of contemporary art history. Can painting ever reclaim the high-ground of representational territory it seems to have lost to the digital camera. Regarding history, memory, image, and perception, Regina Hackett (Arts Journal) helpfully notes that the image of each Tuymans painting is “perfectly transportable. Seeing it reproduced online is not significantly different from seeing it in person” So there’s really no need to climb the endless granite steps up to the Museum of Contemporary Art. Tuymans hasn’t revealed anything more about his historical subjects than his original source material did (much of which is conveniently displayed in a gallery adjacent to his paintings) And if you’re really interested in perceptual psychology or 20th Century European history, your time might much better be spent elsewhere.

But regarding the visual quality of his paintings, yes, you do have to see the works in person, and yes, Tuymans actually is a good painter, with a sensitive feeling for space, texture, and drama.

Compared to many local painters, his drawing and compositional abilities are limited, but he has wisely limited his palette to muted colors and his procedure to whatever he can do in a single session, much as traditional ceramicists have done. The total effect is melancholy – bordering on depression, especially as the labels and commentary connect them to thoughts about mass murder, incurable disease, Disney hucksterism, or, worst of all, the George W. Bush administration. But if you savor contempt and the dark moods of despair that accompany it, you might find this an enjoyable exhibition. (and apparently, there are quite a few wealthy collectors around the world who share that highly educated taste)

Happily, the first week of this exhibit coincided with the last week of an ebulliently buoyant exhibition of Alexander Calder. But after all that colorful, playful eye-candy comes down this weekend, you should probably schedule a few stiff drinks after the show. (just like Tuymans himself probably does. As Dorothy Spears of the New York Timesc reported, he carries around his own flask).

Is it true that “Tuymans' work specifically addresses the challenge of the inadequacy and 'belatedness', as he puts it, of painting. (as promoters a the Tate museum have quoted him)? – i.e. “the fallen state of painting since the 1960’s” ?

Apparently, if a painting is depressing enough, and makes enough politically and theoretically correct references, the answer is resoundingly in the affirmative as Tuymans takes over the entire 4th floor of the M.C.A.

But when will European representational painting, like Odysseus back in Ithaca, finally be allowed to throw off its gray, threadbare, stinking rags and reveal all the beauty, power, and splendor of which it has been capable?

That might take a few more decades.

(BTW - a quite perceptive and breathlessly written commentary on Tuymans has been written here by that Tory gadfly, Bunny Smedley)

1 comment:

  1. God, the MCA exhibit was disappointing. How did Tuymans come to be one of the annointed--I find nothing memorable in his technique, form or even the blah blah unreliable history-collective memory "ideas" behind the works. Compare his "Holocaust" imagery to, say, Anselm Kiefer, and, boy, he comes up wanting. It annoys the hell out of me when a painter as sorely lacking in craft gets this type of acclaim.