Artscape: Luc Tuymans

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

If you feel a connection to fine art, hopefully you've been fortunate enough to stand in the presence of a piece that's made that connection physically palpable.

It could've been something you've known and loved remotely in poster form or an unfamiliar work that surprised on first look, but either way, its effect moved past your eyes to your chest, creating a sensation like having your wind knocked out.

In Luc Tuymans, the first major U.S. exhibition of the Belgian painter's work on view, numerous works hold this potential but the reasons why aren't usually clear at introduction. Visually, their first strike is a defiant difference from what's expected in a show of representational paintings.

Even as you spend time with Tuymans' art, its effect is hard to verbalize - an appropriate response for a painter whose work often fixes on the instances where words and images become inadequate, who combines familiar objects and historic events with an unfamiliar and challenging approach to the codified ways of his medium.

"I still recall my own first encounter with Luc Tuymans' work, at perhaps his earliest New York gallery show, some 15 years ago," Wexner Center executive director Sherri Geldin told reporters at the show's media preview.

"There was something perversely powerful about these enigmatic paintings. Hovering in a newly mined place between abstraction and representation, between stark and seductive, between object and apparition - they were utterly unique."

Since her first encounter with Tuymans' work, Geldin's wanted to bring it to Columbus, and she found the right accomplice for her mission in former exhibitions curator Helen Molesworth.

Working with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and its former curator, Madeleine Grynsztejn, the Wex has amassed more than 70 pieces created over three decades for an exhibition that will eventually travel to San Francisco, Dallas, Chicago and Brussels.

The works share a remarkably drab, vaguely bleached color palette, in which black seems present in every hue but never comes into its own. Strongly controlled brushstrokes are applied on the horizontal, flattening perspective.

It's further muddled by context-free framing of objects - "Wrapping Paper" appears as institutional wall covering, while "Buttonhole" becomes a gaping, frightening maw. Yet Tuymans also incorporates tactics familiar from cinema, in series that hint at stories through establishing shots and close-ups.

His aesthetic creates a distance and sense of distrust with what you're seeing, but Tuymans' depictions of historical traumas, and the titles he assigns to these, stir something deep within the viewer.

For an example, there's "Gas Chamber," one of a number of works centered on the Holocaust. Without the title, it's a spare canvas of dark, random daubs suggesting some sort of large room; with the title, the mind can easily conjure enough horrors to fill the canvas.

In the case of the series "Der Arkitekt," Tuymans avoids the futility of trying to represent evil visually by creating portraits of Final Solution architects Heinrich Himmler and Albert Speer but not attempting to recreate their faces.

The painter hits closer to home with "Proper," a series inspired by the U.S. post-9/11, in which the American ways of ballroom dancing, setting fancy places for dinner and blowing things up are rendered like ghost images, about to dematerialize altogether.

The sources for these images are still fresh enough to instill some kind of reaction in most of us, and with Tuymans' distancing effect, it may come with a wish to know more, both about the works and the Belgian's personal perspective on his subjects and his medium.

The first comes from close, unhurried examination. As Geldin said, "This show takes enormous commitments of time." As for the second, Tuymans will return to the Wexner Center on Tuesday, Nov. 10, for a public conversation with UCLA scholar T.J. Clark.

Luc Tuymans

When: Through Jan. 3

Where: Wexner Center for the Arts, Campus