Since the 1970s, painting as an art has been declared to be dead more than once. Belgian artist Luc Tuymans, on the other hand, is someone who breathed new life into painting in Flanders. He had his first exhibition in 1988 – a full ten years after the creation of his first works – because, in his own words, he wanted to be more-or-less sure that he was ready. And yet, Tuymans’ work speaks to painting’s ‘impotence’ which, paradoxically, is also the source of its strength. The selective vagueness of our memories, as well, in part determines the stylistic characteristics of his paintings. They are usually of modest format, oftentimes with pale, muted, sparse colors and a strongly simplified figuration bereft of visual ‘detail’. Both individual as well as collective memory/past are important sources of inspiration for Tuymans, principally with respect to wartimes. The visual material from this period that is handed us, is carefully handled and commented upon in his works. Moreover, the medium of film and his experiments with it have indelibly marked Tuymans’ work, and he relates this to with the mechanism of memory: film is delivered to us as a still image, while painting spurs us to transpose images in movement. Tuymans keeps playing with the notion that meaning is more important than image. This is why he has in recent years – aside from wartime-related motifs – broached various other ‘loaded’ themes, like biblical topics, nationalism, intolerance and violence.
Luc Tuymans is a worldwide referential - and therewith also very expensive - artist. Part of his praxis is the realisation of paintings in situ, most often for temporary situations and therefore out of the market system, in a grand scale where Tuymans remains the painter and other artists are assisting him as external eyes during the process of realisation. In Moscow such a painting is a temporary reference in the central pavilion nr. 1. It is a version of his theme of ‘The Worshipper’, a cleric of indeterminate faith engaged in an ambiguous ceremony.
Credits ©image: Marc Wathieu
Luc Tuymans has realised one of his largest paintings ever for the Moscow biennial. Because he was unavailable for the ten days of Moscow, he came a week beforehand. His work was therewith the first work to be realised and a starting point for the whole of the biennial.
For these large scale in situ wall paintings Tuymans has a specific way of engaging assistants. Many artists, also painters, work with studio assistants who execute (part of ) the work. The Antwerp baroque painter Rubens even had four different price categories depending upon the amount of work he himself invested in it. In the case of Tuymans the artist is the only one who is painting, but the role of his assistants - valid artists on their own behalf - is therefore not less important. They function as additional eyes. They may give indications from their position, so that the work is being realised under the scrutiny of different perspectives and distances. The challenges that are addressed in this way are of a pictorial nature, in this central pavilion work for example the degree of differentiation and sameness of different zones in the green background, or the play of the purple hues in the dress of the figure.
As always with Tuymans, the focus is not on how more might be done but rather on how less may strengthen the work. The central element is the hand. It remains in the white of the primary layer, only the outlines of a shape that seems to be willing to express something, an uncannily ambiguous gesture.
Luc Tuymans is an artist whom continuously researches the intertwining of representation and presence. He does not invent images but interprets and positions them in such a way that they get a proper capacity, in between thematic and pictorial meaning. The images that were the starting point are often first unbalanced by an intermediary image. For some time he took polaroid photos of the images he wanted to work with, and based himself upon those, the deviations of their shabby quality informing him as much as the initial starting point.
Here the base was a bad quality reproduction of a painting he realised himself, ‘The Worshipper’, of 2004, that was earlier on also turned into a silkscreen and that was the figurehead and delivered the title of the Phaidon monograph on the artist. The work in Moscow is cropped in relation to the earlier ones: the Christmas tree that was earlier on visible on the right has been left out. The proportions of the image are not standard, the painting is a bit more narrow – or proportionally higher- than would usually be the case. Because of this, the format may remind of a main altar painting in a catholic church.
The figure of a priest of an unspecified faith now stands isolated, a figure that is in a luminous state of fading out within his frame, with a hand that merely stretches to the whiteness of the surrounding of the wall, or the wider world. Initially, before entering the hall through the vast entrance arch, only the bottom part of the body with the hand is visible, as one will later from the sides of the hall see the head and shoulders of the figure hovering over the theatre and the tent like pavilion that houses Kostja Zvezdochotov’s Egyptian Museum.
Even if it is obviously possible to connect the subject matter of ‘The Worshipper’ to the primacy of the Russian Orthodox church and its patriarch, the work can also be connected to religion in an entirely different way; not to the dominant presence of the church, but to the spiritual as related to transience and disappearance.
When I shared with Daria Lihovitskaya - one of the producers of the biennial - my sense that this painting generates a strong sense of location, reminiscent of a figurative Casimir Malevich painting that used to feel like the centre of Paris to me in the former collection hanging of the Centre Pompidou, she responded by saying that this is because this painting lets the experience of a visitor become personalised, that’s why people will remember it. This is true, the work can be experienced only as an embodied painting. When one approaches the lower part of the figure opens up itself as grounded in precise and quite decisive brush strokes.
The impression of a relation to Malevich may also be an outcome of the character of the brush strokes. In both of these artistic spaces, that of Malevich and that of Tuymans, the brush strokes do not testify of an artist realising an art work, they are witnesses of detachment as an expression of commitment, commitment to an image that needed to be realised. (BDB)