Impending Sense of Doom

Luc Tuymans’ disapproving, abbreviated art for the age of anxiety

Luc Tuymans is a Belgian painter with a broad fan base among other artists and the public as well. His show of new paintings at David Zwirner Gallery is called “Proper.” The work takes a less than subtle swipe at the U.S.’s world policies and general way of life. These are easy targets lately.

The show might also be considered a perfect fit for the so-called age of anxiety. Exact interpretation of the show as a whole is not simple, but there is an impending sense of something about to happen, a doomed inevitability about the subject matter of most of the paintings.

Witness “Timer,” a simple, almost white on white painting of a timer on a wall with a small red light, which will indicate when time, is up. “The Secretary of State” is a closely cropped portrait of Condoleezza Rice. She is the embodiment of concentrated determination. “Ballroom Dancing” depicts a lone couple dancing on the seal of the state of Texas, supposedly at the governor’s ball. “Demolition” is made up of clouds of smoke after the destruction of a building. “The Perfect Table Setting” shows just that. It appears to be a rather formal table setting for some sort of state dinner.

All of these constitute cinematic and literary indictment of what America thinks of itself and the façade of grandiosity and manners. There is more than a little “fiddling while Rome burns” to Tuymans’ commentary. A few well-put lines of serious sarcasm in the New Yorker or a British political cartoon would easily have more relevance as a reprimand, subtle or not.

In the process of pointing out problems with society, Tuymans also demonstrates problems with the state of painting. The work is all done in a “northern” palette, with the pallid tone of the North Sea. Everything is in shades of pale gray to olive, some blue, an occasional yellow, and lots of almost white. Close inspection reveals what appears to be an Old Master-style painterly surface to be a sketchy abbreviation of the same. This is an attempt to valorize superficiality. A lot of Tuymans’ shorthand makes even a fatuous sketch artist like Elizabeth Peyton look masterful. Perhaps this is supposed to be the charm of Tuymans’ pieces. They look good across the room; they reproduce well, but don’t get too close. Their bland appeal soon becomes a phone-in.

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