Romantic fallacies

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That being an artist is a romantic undertaking still holds true for many; but not Luc Tuymans, whose thinly-smeared, off-register and elusively referential images oscillate between what is depicted and a sheer detachment from the subject matter. They conjure up a subconscious world where the most banal elements – creased sheets on an unkempt bed or an eerily uninhabited children’s room – are fraught with meaning. And mass-mediated imagery, often transcribed, cropped and discolored from their photographic sources, appears estranged from its presupposed narrative, be it the gas chamber, Belgian imperialism in the Congo, or Disney.

Born 1958 in Mortsel, not too far away from the historic town of Antwerp where his studio is also located, the Belgian artist is widely credited for bringing painting back from its repeatedly proclaimed death. Peter Schjeldahl, poet and New Yorker art critic, observed that Tuymans “discovers in the very humiliation of the medium a vitality as surprising as a rosebush on the moon.” Painting, as Tuymans would argue, was the very first conceptual medium; to sustain and reinvent its criticality, relentless intellectual reckoning is just as crucial as rigorous visual thinking. Whereas his works are indelible in their opaqueness and effectively evade fixed interpretations, the artist himself never shies from articulating his scepticism towards pervading trends in the contemporary art world, and this eventually materialised in several curatorial projects, broad in scope yet equally intense in their examination of the conditions of image-making.

What was it like growing up in Antwerp during the 60s and 70s?
Antwerp used to be a bit more cosmopolitan than it is now. When I was young, up until I was fourteen, even fifteen, the boats would come straight into the centre of the city. Then all of a sudden, of course, the harbours expanded, eight to nine times the size of the city, by now into the biggest port in Europe. The other pillar at the time was always the diamond trade, given the highest concentration of Hasidic Jews in Europe.

In those days it was a very lively city, but this is, of course, a global situation – I think even Manhattan has lost a lot of its edgy sides over the past twenty years and has become quite conformist.
And gentrified.Yes, less and less cosmopolitan in the sense that lots of cities have become … uniform, so to speak. In those years, say, the years of my youth and adolescence, it was a certainly a different place.

What is it about painting that made you decide that it’s the medium you wanted to work with?
It came naturally. I had a mentor who was not a really good artist, but a very good teacher, who taught drawing. He was actually the one who convinced me to really make that step – to become an artist and not into graphic design – and to really jump into the water, so to speak, when I was seventeen or eighteen. I made my first painting when I was sixteen, now in the Museum of Osaka. The painting is called Needles. It’s actually something I saw from a train – a person, who is, of course, distorted because of the speed and who had a very piercing gaze which was like two points, like needles. It was a very frightful, strange image.

Did you have art history training at all?
Yes, I studied art history as a sort of working student.

Which is perhaps why you are so critical of the contemporary art discourse.
Well, criticality would depend on the quality of the discourse (laugh).

I was reading your dialogue with David Zwirner [owner of the gallery which represents Tuymans] in the latest catalogue, and was intrigued by your comment on recent generations of curators as being trained similarly and treating art and curating as an assignment.
The problem is that there are a lot of curatorial approaches, but you also have the network of the curators themselves which is sort of a controlling network, because, of course, everybody has his own interests and priorities to take care of. But there are less and less of the type of curators who depart from, passionate or not, the viewpoint of the visual. We are dealing with visual arts. And a lot of it is about sociology of the 80s, this sort of detached and not-really-digested pseudo-intellectual understanding of whatever philosophical system or framework you can think of. You shouldn’t forget that a lot of people have been blatantly misunderstood.

People like Derrida and Deleuze have been reduced to a textbook synopsis of what they are all about, missing all the subtleties, then passed on to students in universities. This is already a grave reduction, and if the student doesn’t really delve into it with his or her own intelligence and interest, you get quite a uniform and deluded form of intelligence, which can only be looked upon as utterly stupid. There are also the people who just cite quotes instead of knowing what’s in front of or behind the quote … this is just laziness – as I call it, ‘intellectual laziness’.

Although a lot of these curators are trying to take a critical stance towards stuff like the art market and so on, they are just avoiding it within their own cocoons. You either have the academic cocoon, which is the university, or you have the network, which is the other controlling cocoon. I’ve probably been one of the few artists to state the obvious. It’s important to make this statement because under that mode of operation lots of artists are just left alone, or left with the other function that’s the market.

And that’s a shame, because I think the market should be differentiated and, especially for the next generation, diversified and put into a different perspective. This is exactly where a lot of people in the curatorial field lack when dealing with their responsibility, because they just go into a half-hatched and also very wrong kind of nostalgia, an intellectual nostalgia, thinking about ideas like May ’68. How are you going to defend a line like l’imagination au pouvoir (the power of imagination)? Imagination becomes subordinate to reality, not the other way around.

Do you read the philosophers that you consider being crudely skimmed through?
I do. Not only that, I also read literature, something that’s important. Also, my first friends, at the beginning of my trying to become an artist, were mostly writers or poets, much more than visual art persons. You used to have, up until the 19th century, this great link between literature and all the different art forms, which has now declined. That’s why, for example, a book of Hélène Cixous, who is a writer and the best friend of Derrida, is quite enormous and quite fantastic; we are talking about a woman who’s highly intelligent, highly rare, highly sensitive, but who is also seventy four years old. So this is really strange that the old generation apparently is far more open to this type of collaboration than young ones.

Jumping back to your artistic development in the 80s, when you stopped painting for a few years and pursued film-making – what caused the shift?
Painting came too close and became too existential, too suffocating, and I didn’t have enough distance. I couldn’t distance myself from the subject, I was totally entangled in this sort of torment; all the romantic notions came together and made it impossible. So I had to stop, and by accident, somebody shoved a super 8 camera in my hands so I started to film on a daily basis. In a way there’s quite a bit of similarity between painting and filming, although they are two separate mediums in their own right. They both have to do with the idea of approaching imagery; you can edit in the camera as you like, but you approach the image – that’s what you do with painting too, in a totally different way. With film of course you have the dimension of time, but it’s unlike photography, where you have to be in the moment, or it will always be too late.

It’s intriguing how this immanent dimension of time is often manifested in your paintings as well. In 1985, you installed your first solo exhibition after resuming painting, at a swimming pool, which seemed to be quite an outlandish idea. What were the paintings like? And where are they now?
They are all in museum collections. My mother and some friends came to the show, which happened in an emptied house and by a swimming pool, with drinks. The structure actually doesn’t exist any more; the hotel that used to have this Turkish bar, beautiful Art Deco style, and the swimming pool, was eventually destroyed and turned into a conference hall. I had rented it out for one day. I sent out five thousand invitations, some replied but most of them didn’t come.

When night fell, at twilight, I was looking at this space from above, and I said to myself, “It’s going to be ok” – because this is the first time I saw the works in a different environment, a bigger space – for 30 years I’d been working in this space the size of an apartment. This was 1985, and 100 works had already been painted, out of which a small selection were shown at the edge of the swimming pool. So at least it gave me the opportunity to see it outside the normal surroundings which constituted my studio. It was important to make the step, you know, to extrapolate imagery into a different space, with or without the public. I also think it’s important for an artist to be convinced of herself or himself.

How would you describe your relationship with the old masters, in both the narrow and broad sense of the term?
Of course there is, if not in terms of genealogy, a sense of where you come from, and also the symbolic capital and the idea to work the image, but one should never mingle up tradition and origin, because I think that’s the worst possible nightmare. People like Goya, Manet, Velázquez, El Greco and, of course, especially Van Eyck, who is the most powerful painter in the Western hemisphere … when you see the details, they are so, not only exquisite, but also perfect, that you can’t forget it. It’s not Leonardo Da Vinci (smirks), it’s not gonna be any Renaissance man, it’s gonna be that. Finished. There is, of course, the idea of Western image-building, and this image-building is largely based upon religion, basically, if not Catholicism.

Through the idea of the eternal sin, it was possible to introduce into imagery the idea of nudity. Before that it didn’t happen. So these are all very decisive moments and it’s also interesting, especially when I criticise this idea of curatorial practice, that these are such embedded, clichéd or not, images or imagery that cannot be easily destroyed or denounced. Even when they are taken out of the centre of the art world, they remain not only compelling but also determining the situation even more. So it’s better to address those situations as a critical mass than to make it non-negotiable.

You once remarked that Van Eyck’s realism was so profound that it hurts.
It is really hurting. He is also, I think, one of the most ambitious artists that ever lived, although he pretended to be exceedingly humble. It’s unforgiving because if you blow up a face or even a tiny part of the painting to the size of a façade, it would just be there, it would still be there. Despite working under the cloak and the religious dogma, which encompasses society and everything, he was the first one to open the image towards the world by heightening this realism, by heightening the portrayal of materials, especially in one of my preferred paintings, the Arnolfini Wedding, owned by the National Gallery in London, where it has the convex mirror, and even his name was on the painting –  “Jan Van Eyck was here”.

Do you think part of the reason why people eschew probing into the appeal and power of the image (and that of image-making) is also because it’s so heavily historicised? When you started out as an artist, particularly in painting, there must also have been that struggle with the multiple legacies being inherited.
Yes, but on the other hand, it’s amazing how extremely resilient the imagery is over time; they are quite accurate and very contemporary. It’s a mistake within art and culture to think in a linear way, because an art work is not one to one. It is actually an inquest in the best way and quite enigmatic. The problem is not so much with reason or rationale, or the discourse around it or contextualising itself; it’s too much context, too much discourse, and too little of the visual and far too little passion for the image.

This of course has to do with mass-imagery, internet, whatever. It’s all the elements of access that have created a great deal of access. It’s just the availability. So the element of choice is sort of panned out by the enormous availability of whatever. This is where selecting an image, altering an image, even within this very work, is interesting; and there painting is interesting because it’s an archaic medium.

Well, there’s also ink.
Speaking of ink, when I was co-organising the show with the Palace Museum in Beijing (Forbidden Empire: Vision of the World by Chinese and Flemish Masters, 2007), we saw the scrolls from the 8th century, and it was insane because the quality, if you compare that to what was happening in this part of the world, we were actually, at that time, morons. In terms of the advanced visuality, but also the quality of the ink and paper, till this day, if you see the scrolls from 15th-16th century China, it’s an inexplicable state.

A lot of failures also have to do with the fact that curators of modern and contemporary art museums are so inapt to really work with their permanent collections. Then you feel a grave need for how these contemporary art works would be interconnected in more decisive and meaningful ways. I’m still convinced that one should not underestimate the public by coming up with these discourses and numbing them with didactics, decapitating any sense of pleasure. And I think you should still go for the quality of things.

The Summer is Over confronts your close vicinity and daily routines, which are subjects you didn’t deal with much before, correct?
Well not that directly. I wanted this closure element, a personalised take on this 10th show. So I decided to work only with things in my vicinity, like the backside of the zoo. But all are impenetrable, no longer to be negotiated, even the self-portrait which my wife took, which showed an unattended moment of me and was not quite flattering; in the same time it’s a state of age.

And it also plays with this certain element of romanticising the figure of the artist looking at his work and all this type of crap, of course, since these portraits are not self-portraits. At the opening, a lot of people who talked to me were quite emotional. Like it was very private, it had a lot of mental introspection, and in a sense they did exactly what I wanted them to do, which is to be a sucker for romance (laugh).

Are you, though?
No. The joke is on the spectator.

Even when you don’t intend to romanticise, people still respond that way?
Of course.

You anticipated this, and set them up?

The images are still quite opaque.
Well they should be good paintings. That’s the other thing. There’s been a lot of talking on what paintings are about, what they deal with, but this deals with the narrow line between abstraction and monumentality of things, and the representational image. The leg (one of the paintings in the show) is quite difficult to figure out, but it is that. Other titles are extremely straightforward. The Jacket, Me, Wall, Zoo, so it’s all very matter-of-fact. These things are there. It’s also a show about mortality. People die one day.

But how can you not romanticise about mortality? People dig that.
That’s part of the joke. Hence the title, The Summer is Over. Actually it’s derived from the last time I saw the father of a colleague, also an artist, a friend of mine who was already going through dementia at the time. In the restaurant, he had a lucid moment and turned to me and said, ‘The summer is really over’. Two weeks later he was dead. This type of lucidity is translucent in the sense that it’s totally different from anything you can think of.

Do you consider understanding the context of these works critical to appreciating them?

But you also said that once all the information is provided, one can really start to look.
That’s something I always did, because I didn’t believe in taking up a mystifying position as an artist, standing in the corner, and once in a while saying something intelligent. So from the start I gave all the source material, and most journalists really took on that, took on that really happily because then they know what to write. Otherwise they get mad at me, because if I don’t talk about it, they can’t write about it. So it’s never okay. What I say is just what I say. I’m also not my work and work is not me – even when it portrays my own person.

by Xin Wang

Nice by Luc Tuymans will be showing from September 27, 2013 – January 5, 2014 at The Menil Collection, Houston, TX. The exhibition will present approximately 30 paintings by the artist from his earliest mature work G. Dam, 1978 to canvases finished as recently as 2011.