Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Luc Tuymans's: A Funny Sound To Make

The MCA currently showing a body of Luc Tuyman's work entitled: Luc Tuymans. So, uh, pretty basic title there.
You can read Ben Stoler's excellent Chicagoist review here, but first you should read this, because Chicagoist already has plenty of readers.

The first thing is that this show is striking. Just... wow. I would hesitate to say that a lot of exhibitions I've seen at MCA are... less than stellar in their focus, but... well, there it is. This, however, is smashingly assembled, quietly powerful with almost no fat or filler (incidentally, the show was co-organized by the San Fransisco Museum for Modern Art and the Wexner Center for the Arts). It's amazing how commanding the work is, considering how muted. My first reaction was that I was reading Moby Dick in size 2 type. If you've ever wondered what the missing link is between the dynamism of Gerhard Richter and the blank-faced bankruptness of Alex Katz and Elizabeth Peyton, here you are.

The show is a perfect, compact introduction to both his body of work and his method. After gallery after gallery of subtle, riveting work we're granted a look into his material inspirations: photographs, magazines, film and film stills, postcards, recognizable personalities and iconography. Too often ephemera like this feels like a put-on, an invitation to get a little closer to the "cool artist" persona; "Oh neat, polaroids of beautiful people in studios". Here it offers an amazing insight into the exact way Tuymans absorbs media. There's little collage, little corection or sketches, just images you can see distorted in his corpus. The recontextualizing he does in the previous rooms is mapped here out for the viewer, and the work we've just studied comes to life again behind us, creeping with renewed menace.

It would be wrong of course to discuss the show without making a note of the actual paint. It's infrequent that the MCA has work as "traditional" as this, gallery after gallery of oil on canvas, actually though the painting itself is a pretty radical departure from oil tradition. Thin, matte, and dry, with little reworking or correction, the paint here is about as far from the effects oil conventionally strives for as one can imagine. A debt to Richter (and, I think, to Balthus) aside, it's difficult to think of a precursor to the style and confidence of these paintings. The virtuosity of the painting is only excelled by how bare bones it is.

One of the most interesting pieces featured is, suprisingly, a short loop of film by Tuymans, mostly just half hidden faces, which reveals how specific and all encompassing his vision is. That he's managed to transform film into the tonal aesthetic of his paintings is a small miracle, it looks like a silver nitrate print or photoetching in motion, and illustrates how practiced is the ambiguity of the rest of his work.

Of course, inseparable from his working method is the content of his paintings. Holocaust imagery, toppled African states, privilege, scattered religious imagery, these could be the concerns of any European artist coming to grips with any European country's role in the 20th century. But in Tuyman's hands there's little judgement, little condemnation, simply bloodless reflection. I don't mean this disparagingly, he doesn't condone the colonialism, racism, and violence he's reflecting on, simply that the tone of the work is so sparing as to almost leave judgement up to the viewer. A crop here, a face in shadow there, his denunciations are, like the paintings themselves, faint but effective. Among the most shocking is a small painting of Himmler, a dark silhouette against a wall and without a face. Here Tuymans needs to do no more than set the possibility of a mood; the viewer's knowledge of one of the last century's great monsters provides the unease.

The exhibition runs through January 9th of next year.

MCA's exhibition page here.

Tuymans has a weird site, better off using Saatchi's page/bio if you're interested.


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