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There are ways in which Belgian painter Luc Tuymans very much resembles Julian Assange, the embattled, secretive honcho of WikiLeaks. Both men channel a deep distrust of political hierarchies and official truths into practices intended to make transparent the opaque machinations of power. Both figures boast an engagement with the modern media that defines their respective confrontations with what they call the established order. And both personalities have been known to employ—usually to the detriment of a larger cause—a tetchy, high-handed manner cultivated to undercut skeptics unconvinced by the righteousness of their message.
In the case of the whistleblower Assange, his abundant character flaws could very well prove to be his own and his organization's undoing (regular folks like their political revolutionaries Nelson Mandela–saintly or not at all). But with Tuymans—as is made abundantly clear in a powerful new exhibition at Chelsea's David Zwirner Gallery—a creative stance that has previously been pegged as imperious has finally found a theme to fully suit his austere, often detached style: the Moloch-like omnipotence of corporations.
Luc Tuymans is one of a handful of international artists who have been individually credited with rescuing the practice of painting from Jean Baudrillard's dustbin (others include, in alphabetical order, John Currin, Neo Rauch, Gerhard Richter, and Lisa Yuskavage). Since the late 1980s, he has made deadpan, at times dour paintings that embrace politics as their subject matter, while tending toward compact brushwork and scales of gray rather than flashy colors and bravura expression. Unfortunately, his barbed ideological challenges have sometimes appeared indistinguishable from the backslapping armchair liberalism that regularly fluffs culture's clubby consensus.
What Tuymans paints—like other important practitioners of the medium—is the divide between what is real (or what he reckons is real) and what is just plain visible. The challenge involves querying both the photographic image and the way it bludgeons its viewers, a trial Tuymans resolves by fusing Richter's distancing blurry photographic manner with the dogged uniformity of Giorgio Morandi. Tuymans's hazy, somber canvases—they include pale portraits of Pope Benedict XVI, a grimacing Condoleezza Rice, and an off-kilter view of a serial killer's kitchen—rely on the world's usual banal media sources for imagery, namely newspapers, YouTube, and terrible TV (he once made a painting from the show Big Brother). The temptation exists, therefore, to read his paintings quickly—as addenda to Andy Warhol's affectless machine prints. Nothing could be dumber. The artist's weighty real-life narratives routinely flout the chummy, glad-handing rules of early-21st-century irony. (All of today's witticisms look second-rate when, as the philosopher Slavoj Zizek says, "The market is the great ironist.")
To paraphrase curator Robert Storr, Luc Tuymans's opaque canvases do not play hard to get. What they do is often simply hard to get, which demands that the viewer perform some fine-tuning. Tuymans, for instance, is particularly adept at a morally challenged, painterly bait-and-switch. An older, gouachy canvas, for example, conjures a dun-colored hotel ballroom—that is, until its title gives it away as an image of a gas chamber at Dachau. Another, much-reproduced picture of a smiling redneck painted in grisaille—"A gray tone is never just gray," Tuymans once said about El Greco's shadows—turns out to be a portrait of a rabid Klansman. Just as we imagine that tidy John Boehner stashes peaked hoods and garter belts inside his congressional closet, perversely ugly truths pop up behind the surface of these images. The visual apathy and Janus-faced nature of pictures are Tuymans's principal bugbears. "My aim is to confront indifference," he has said. "Indifference is a danger with an intelligence all its own."
Tuymans has loads going on currently. The subject of a traveling U.S. retrospective (a damned shame it won't be touching down in New York), he has also recently curated a museum exhibition in Belgium and is launching a new book (the title, Luc Tuymans: Is It Safe?, invokes the absurdist line Laurence Olivier pummeled Dustin Hoffman with during dental torture in Marathon Man). All this in addition to his new show of paintings at David Zwirner. In a scrupulous act of artistic follow-through, Tuymans painted precisely the canvases he described in an interview some 10 months ago: "The next series will be tightly knit and will deal with the role of the corporate in our lives, with its pervasiveness and its invisibility. The paintings will focus on the kind of light that shines in passageways and meeting rooms, reducing people and objects to bits of scenery—a light that hovers over us all." On the evidence of the 12 glowering, glowing canvases on view at 19th Street, he nailed it.
Among the gloomy gems populating this show are several that rank among the darkest, most diamantine works I have seen in recent memory. A large painting called Corporate features the ominous hulk of a galleon plowing a slate-colored sea and cumulonimbus air with the force of an avenging Yahweh. A silhouette of unadulterated power that excavates hundreds of years of history, including the slave trade, the image pairs painterly persuasiveness with a ubiquitous, disembodied reality. How is it that we have gone so long without a proper visual representation of the idea of the corporate?
A second purple-gray canvas titled Panel renders in cloth and oil what television calls a p.o.v. angle on a group of mucky-mucks; the viewer catches their smoldering luminescence from behind the audience's obscured heads. Why is it that we are so dependent on the camera for glimpses of the real? A third work presents a lone, hand-wringing suit standing before an invisible audience. Titled Speech, it is one of the few of Tuymans's shadowy pictures to employ directional light—his light characteristically emanates from his painted subjects like an assertive aura—and the one painting here to feature the full human figure. Made small and insignificant by forces outside the frame, this fragile CEO is reduced to the condition of a familiarly sympathetic puppet. Where does control lie with a headless amalgamated entity?
Edmund Burke once said that beauty is accentuated by light, but that darkness becomes sublime when it terrifyingly obliterates the sight of an object. In these remarkable pictures of dehumanizing shades, Luc Tuymans presents nothing less than a resolute, irony-free vision of the corporate sublime.