A version of this article first appeared in the
New York Sun, February 28, 2008 under the heading "Taking Down Disney"
LUC TUYMANS Forever: The Management of Magic
Think Disney and what most likely comes to mind is a cartoon feature with some combination of the following: Cuddly, instantly recognizable characters; lush, bright color; quick, ingenious animation; and the realization that countless hours of wizardry went into making each magical moment.
The work of Luc Tuymans, the Belgian painter, on the other hand, could be defined as the opposite of the above on every count: His canvases are fuzzy, ambiguous, barely scrutable images rendered in thin, open yet tentative, unfluent brushmarks and washed-out tones that are muted to the point of anemia.
Disney gives the world a tightly-sealed package of seamless joy and clean-cut sentimentality. Mr. Tuymans, from interviews, emerges as an artist intent on cracking open images to disclose their interstices and the complex social and economic forces that manufacture values.
Where Disney offers a tried and tested formula for the masses, Mr. Tuymans is the acquired taste of an intelligentsia. His paintings, obdurately worked from obscure, ephemeral source images, are enigma variations, even though, recently, he has begun to share the snapshots or photocopies from which his images are inflated. The title of a new book of essays on the artist is indicatively subtitled “I don’t get it.”
Now, Mr. Tuymans offers a new body of work on the theme of Disney. None of the familiar characters you might expect are present: No Mickey, Donald, or Pluto. Instead, it is the vicariously experienced attractions of Disneylands of yesteryear — rides through Alice in Wonderland setups, the turtle float from the Main Street Electrical Parade — based on sources of requisite distance, such as a homemade movie of an anonymous family.
And Mr. Tuymans has also tackled the utopian plans and hi-tech researches of Disney the corporation, making work from experiments and half-aborted projects that reflect what the artist sees as Big Brotherish plans for controlling every aspect of people’s entertainment experience. “Epcot” (2007), for instance, which depicts what looks like a spaceship floating on a large neutral ground, is taken from a publicity still for Disney’s Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, partially realized as a Florida theme park in the 1980s but originally conceived as a living community that recalls the grandiose schemes of such enlightenment figures as Jeremy Bentham and Étienne-Louis Boullée.
Mr. Tuymans’s riffs on Disney are the latest in a series of his shows that take on America: previous bodies of work meditated on imagery of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, while his last show at David Zwirner, in 2005, titled “Proper,” claimed to deal with the “crumbling state” of our political leadership. The critical focus on the United States by a Belgian (whose own country’s viability is more precarious) might recall the fixation of other European intellectuals on a quasi-mythical America, such as the Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier. But in contrast to the venom and near-hysteria of the latter’s “Dogville” (2003), Mr. Tuymans’s “Forever: The Management of Magic” offers a much cooler, more enigmatic and open-ended kind of critique.
Indeed, it the accompanying rhetoric of interviews and press releases — the program notes, so to speak — that pinpoints any kind of criticality. Left to their own devices, the paintings induce ambiguous emotional responses that hardly signify in any overt manner the political messages claimed for them.
The paintings represent a significant formal departure for Mr. Tuymans in terms of their size. Some are gigantic, almost mural-scaled, such as “Turtle” (2007), which is 12 by 16 feet. It is often repeated in the literature about Mr. Tuymans (in my on 2005 review of his last New York show in these pages, for instance) that he works “alla prima,” concerned to complete each image in a single session. This , according to his gallery, was never actually the case (although the artist gave indications that it was in interviews) but would certainly be belied by the formidable work required for canvases of this size, which are built up in his characteristically feathery, close-knit brushstrokes.
At whatever speed they are worked, however, the paintings’ affect on the viewer is a strange mix of tempi. On the one hand, they are a slow read. “Turtle,” for instance, with its mass of white blobs against a gray ground, does not register as the animal float from the Electric Parade its title indicates without strained effort and familiarity with the source. Instead, it seems to resemble, at first, an out-of-focus kissing couple. At the same time, the frustrated pace does not compensate with painterly rewards. The ungenerosity of color and the fiddly, noodling brushiness induce a corresponding lethargy on the viewer’s part.
This is not painterliness that cracks open the familiar to expose perceptual treasure. In “Epcot” there is a large patch of steely blue forming a vibrating lozenge on the lower section of the gray ground against which the utopian model floats. Very superficially, it recalls similar patches in late Bonnard paintings. But in Bonnard, even where you cannot verbalize the effect, you sense a formal or psychological value or direction to it, and, correspondingly, that it arises from intense relationship with the subject. In Mr. Tuymans, you are never allowed to forget that the source is banal and secondary. The painterly effects, therefore, are improvised, or else have to do with conveying the vagaries of cheap photographic sources. Painterliness underscores alienation rather than ameliorating it. The emotional result is enervating, not illuminating.
But for a painter taking on false utopias, deconstructing corporate control, and seeking to question assumptions about language and pleasure, this is all as it should be. The more dull and confounding he can be the better for the conceptual credentials of his project.
Taking on Disney, Mr. Tuymans is locking horns with the most successful enthraller of children of all times. In doing so, this quintessential postmodern intellectual among painters recalls an epithet the Surrealist poet André Breton extended to Picasso’s paintings: “tragic toys for adults.”
Until March 22 (525 West 19 Street, between Tenth and Eleventh avenues, 212-727-2070).