|The little space between
the explanation of the picture and the picture itself
affords the only possible perspective on painting.
|The psychological element
in the cinematic image has the same mobility as a
painting. One approaches the image. One goes towards the
image (...) Don't forget that, in spite of the so -
called antiquarian aspect of painting, it is a highly
mobile medium. By my way of painting and by my physical
presence, I decide on the spot, how big or how small
something becomes. The speed of the medium [painting] is
|Luc Tuymans at White Cube, London
A first glance at these four modestly-scaled canvases, hung neatly one to a wall, does not immediately identify them as the work of an ex-nightclub bouncer. Nevertheless, it seems that Luc Tuymans spent a good ten years cracking heads before redirecting his energy towards painting. While the Belgian artist still maintains a healthy interest in capricious violence, this is now, thankfully, tempered by a degree of restraint. Tuymans' images are not outwardly aggressive, but are instead haunted by an anxiety hovering just beyond the frame; a threat of subcutaneous illness or encroaching psychological imbalance. This unease is made visible through a physically tentative but actually rather single-minded technique. Once he has worked through a large number of drawings and studies, Tuymans often makes the final painting in a single uninterrupted session, working `wet on wet' for up to fourteen hours at a stretch. Despite this he refuses the idea of virtuosity by cultivating a certain awkwardness, consistently allowing pencil underdrawing to filter through the paint, or collapsing figurative accuracy back into flat pat- tern. The ethereal is sought out but held perpetually at one remove through the interpolation of workmanlike studio procedure.
Tuymans' frequently quoted maxim that an effective picture should possess `the tremendous intensity of silence - the silence before the storm', provides both an indicator as to the plain gravity of his intention, and illuminates the choice of a palette largely restricted to mouldy pastels, cool greys and dead plaster white. The single word titles appended to each work in this exhibition also suggest a narrowly concentrated focus. While the overall epithet, Splendid Isolation, might conceivably refer to British xenophobia, it makes clear sense too as poetic shorthand for the result of zooming in on small details, cutting them away from immediate context. Since the early 1980s Tuymans has been making short films, Tuymans' Portrait is a ghostly distillation of Raeburn's, and his beached Fish joins a whole school of precedents reaching from Hirst back to Courbet.
Splendid Isolation may be thought of as a set of independent works, but its pared-down presentation suggests that it was conceived of as a modest installation. The ashen pink death mask of Portrait seems to gain efficacy from its face- off with Orange's ringing void, while Shirt and Fish might also be in mute conversation across the room, discussing religious iconography perhaps, or the opposition of nature and nurture.
Nevertheless, the subjects of all these paintings are themselves isolated on their grounds, cut off from any genuinely explanatory scene-setting. As non-sequiters or displaced stills they share atmosphere but neither narrative flow nor specific historical resonance. In this sense they are perhaps less confrontational than earlier works such as Gas Chamber or Our New Quarters, which relate to the experience of war, but are equally melancholic. They hint at the kind of disembodied menace evoked through sound by representatives of Ambient music's `Isolationist' tendency such as Thomas Koner and Paul Schutze, albeit with a more closeted, domestic feel. Claudio Silvestrin's fridge-like gallery architecture seems, for once, rather appropriate.
Tuymans once dismissed the painting of Giorgio Morandi as `poetic bullshit', feeling perhaps that the Italian's introspection signaled an unwillingness to acknowledge the harsher realities of modern life. Nevertheless, a look round the current Morandi exhibition at the Estorick Collection confirms that there is a similarity between the two artists' work which goes beyond superficial likenesses of colour and scale. Both have the ability to invest prosaic objects with anthropomorphic undertones, generating an air of anticipation, even dread, and an openness to projected interpretation. However, while Morandi's still lives eventually threaten to become an abstracted chess game of combination and recombination, Tuymans' greater variety of subjects maintains and extends the quiet power of mood, lending it a broader significance.
Tuymans' work has been much discussed but relatively infrequently shown in this country - his last solo outing in London was at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1995 - so it is heartening to see him still on strong form both here and at Douglas Hyde Gallery in Dublin. His contribution to the Whitechapel's `Examining Pictures' was one of that necessarily uneven show's highlights, and his relevance to the renewed debate around painting and figuration which gave rise to it now seems unarguable. The unabashed austerity of what he does may rankle in certain company, but the tension which this generates is, in the current climate at least, a productive one. Tuymans' practice as an artist is born from conflict just as surely as was his previous career, but while he may no longer draw blood, he worries us still.