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Luc Tuymans

Wonderfully Maddening

If art is meant to challenge and disorient, Belgian artist Luc Tuymans has succeeded admirably. And if art is meant to change the way in which we view things, whether they be momentous events, such as the Holocaust, or simple everyday objects, such as raindrops and lamps, Tuymans again succeeds.

A fascinating collection consisting of a diverse array of subject matter, the Luc Tuymans exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art provides a compelling look into the work of this important contemporary artist.

Tuymans has typically worked in groupings; that is, he tends to create a series of works centered around a particular theme. Thus, to see these works displayed individually in some sense is to see them out of context. Here, however, the SFMOMA has displayed his works in their intended relationships, giving viewers the opportunity to see them in context and to more fully understand the influence of film upon his works. Just as a film is a sequence of interrelated images that combine to tell a story, so, too, are Tuymans’ paintings.

The four series represented in the exhibition are At Random (an exploration of perception of everyday objects); Der Architekt (“The Architect”—a series that takes up the Holocaust); Mwana Kitoko: Beautiful White Man (a consideration of Belgium’s complicated relationship with the Congo); and Proper (a post-9/11 series). In addition to these four series are several works from Der diagnostische Blick (“The Diagnostic View”), a grouping of works based on photographs from a German medical text. Taken together, they give an unprecedented view into the style and concerns of Tuymans.

Two things stand out about Tuymans’ work: his color palette is extremely muted, and his images are often almost impossible to make out. Meaning beckons, tantalizingly close yet unattainable; if one could only make out the face more clearly or bring the pale, shadowy figures into sharper focus. While in some cases these factors can be quite frustrating and disorienting to viewers used to increasingly higher resolution and truer color, they also give rise to thoughtful contemplation.

For instance, Gaskamer (“Gaschamber”) consists of a few lines and shadows of subtle grey and brown against a light yellow background that barely hint at what they depict. After reading the title, viewers may start to recognize the blobs at the top and bottom of the painting as showerheads and a drain, the lines and shadows as forming walls and a gaping black door. This lack of clarity and resolution seems to point to the shadowy obscurity surrounding many of the Nazi’s activities. Or perhaps it suggests the inability of most of us to fully understand what happened in those places of horror and death.

The Leg is another work that becomes easier to understand upon learning the title. In this piece, the ambiguity stems not so much from blurry lines or indistinct images as from a lack of context. Here, Tuymans has painted a view that, due to its framing, presents the leg in an unfamiliar way. In fact, it verges on abstraction, appearing to be a collection of lines and shapes juxtaposed into a nicely balanced composition, almost like a Mark Rothko painting. Yet, once one understands that it is a leg, one can begin to see that the shapes are a skirt, a calf, perhaps the legs of a chair.

This piece, like the several others in the At Random series, begs audiences to truly look without the prejudice of preconceived notions. What does a leg, or a lamp, or a raindrop, or a doll, really look like as a pure perception devoid of the understanding conveyed by names? While sometimes frustrating, it is also fascinating, forcing us to truly see, and also to notice the technique of the painter, which is sometimes eclipsed by the subject matter.

The work of Tuymans is philosophically intriguing and aesthetically interesting. However, this exhibition is one that is much better appreciated with a little bit of background information and an understanding of the arrangement. The placards provided throughout the exhibition provide informative context on the series presented, but the organization of the exhibition is a little bit confusing.

There are a few rooms of works whose membership is unclear; are they part of one of the four main series or something altogether different? And because membership in a series is part of what lends so much meaning to each individual piece, to not be clear about this seems detrimental. It truly is the added contextual information that turns these potentially frustrating, indecipherable works into compelling images.

Tuymans asks audiences to look, and to look again, and to question what is on the surface in both a literal and a figurative sense. What appears to be is not always what is; this is what makes his works, and this exhibition, well worth seeing.

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Now through May 2, 2010
Tickets: Free to $15