Luc Tuymans is a Belgian artist, born in 1958. He still paints, and paints figuratively. That is, there's usually some sort of a recognizable object or surface in his paintings, and -- as a bonus -- the titles often indicate what it is ("Droplets", "Flag"). Tuyman's colors are washed-out and the edges blurred; the paintings look as if they've been left in the sun, or run several times through an antiquated copier. The curated text suggests their resemblance to Polaroid pictures caught in various stages of development. Tuymans does, in fact, often work from photographs. Artificial light plays a role as well: an interior illuminated by blacklight, a tree trunk caught in the harsh glare of a security spotlight, or a diorama throwing shadows against a wall. Tuyman's bleached, suggestive paintings work best as commentaries on the act of representation, without giving in to the self-referential emptiness of 'postmodern' works.
The problem starts when Tuymans gets political. There are paintings here of buildings in Brazzaville in the Congo, of Patrice Lumumba, of King Baudouin I, of the exterior of a concentration camp, of National Socialist functionaries, an American white supremacist, and of Condoleeza Rice. They are apparently intended as oblique political statements on European history, on Belgium's colonial past, or on post-9/11 America. But they're nothing more than Tuymans-esque paintings. Here, for instance, is Tuyamns' painting of a photograph of Patrice Lumumba:
The image is supposed to be freighted with political meaning, but...how, exactly? There's no value added here, nor is there any mystery. Tuymans' genius is not fundamentally narrative, his best paintings don't try to structure reality or channel meaning. Applying a technique this grounded in ambiguity and visual paradox to subjects as fraught as the Holocaust or Belgian colonialism overfreights the technique badly, and invites charges of superficiality.
The real revelation of the show is in Tuymans' video works from the early 1980s, a period in which Tuymans lost the inspiration to paint and turned to video. He shot hundreds of hours of footage of everything from the exterior of cathedrals to security drills to television programs to the glasses and ashtrays on top of café tables to dolls propped up against various backgrounds and harshly lit from the front. Most of the takes are grainy, willfully cropped and framed, and sometimes out of focus. The overall effect is nothing short of mesmerizing: the blurring and cropping of the images invests the most mundane of subjects with some sort of droll, mysterious import. The irony is that the brief interludes of crisply-shot "narrative" are the most surrealistic. At one point, for example, a cutout of a man holding what appears to be a drumstick moves purposefully across the screen and hesitates before a panel of objects that appear to be crudely-drawn, oversized eyes, hesitating before several of them, perhaps trying to decide whether to hit them.
Overall, an intriguing show that's worth a visit. Oddly enough, given that Tuymans is Belgian, the show was exhibited four times in the U.S. and the stop in Brussels is its last. If you go, I would advise against reading the (well-written and well-translated) information placards that explain the "context" of the political paintings.