As Luc Tuymans' new show at David Zwirner's London gallery gets underway, AnOther provides an exclusive extract from the extensive interview the artist did with Skye Sherwin for the latest issue of AnOther Magazine, alongside a gallery of his new and recent works:
Luc Tuymans’ studio is vast: two conjoined white cubes to rival any blue chip gallery. A grid of skylights makes chequered patterns on the walls, which are otherwise bare. “My paintings sell too quickly,” he jokes. In fact his latest work is en route to New York and London for a trans-Atlantic two-hander opening this autumn. Save for a lone trestle table iced with rainbow blobs of paint, and an ancient off-yellow armchair that he’s had forever, there are no personal touches. If anything, what impresses about the space is its cool reticence. This of course seems totally appropriate. The Belgian artist has become the leading painter of his generation, addressing the most harrowing material, not by shouting, but with subtle, needling hints.
Typically working from secondary sources like photographs and film freeze-frames, Tuymans’ approach is never head-on. Rather, his diverse imagery, which has included tropical flowers, hospital patients, Disney, ballroom dancers, Condoleeza Rice, a church altarpiece and barroom signage, slowly works its way under your skin. Everything here becomes a niggling symptom of an elusive cultural trauma, sending shivers through an ailing world. The holocaust, colonial atrocities or the insidious grip of far right politics frequently darken the air, subjects he quietly circles in washy, feathery dabs of paint that’s muted, pallid, thin.
The paintings in his new show Allo! are mostly dark – a sluggish mauve – but tangerines, yellows, blues and creams flicker over their surface like light on water. This is his most colourful work yet in fact. Red devils, palm fronds, flowers and skeletal trees emerge from the murk. We’re lost in jungle shadows where wan, grey-lipped maidens with patterned sarongs, Cleopatra eyes and snaking long legs, bathe and pick fruit. It’s an exotic fantasy, witnessed over the shoulder of a sunburned man in a panama hat: the colonialist observing his kingdom?
"The Belgian artist has become the leading painter of his generation, addressing the most harrowing material, not by shouting, but with subtle, needling hints"
The supressed history of Western Imperialism has been a major subject for Tuymans. One of his most celebrated series, Mwana Kitoko: Beautiful White Man, from 2000, meditated on Belgium’s rape of the Congo, and the Belgian government’s part, along with the US, in the execution of the country’s first democratically elected prime minister Patrice Lumumba in 1961. Certainly the UK-based arts body Artangel had this in mind when they invited Tuymans to make a painting inspired by a section in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (the novel adapted as Apocalypse Now), describing paintings made by Kurtz, the European ivory trader who decorates his Congolese garden with spiked heads.
Yet Allo! sees Tuymans pursue a new angle. Eschewing Conrad, he turned to the closing sequences from The Moon and Sixpence, an all but forgotten 1942 screen adaptation of the Somerset Maugham novel based on the life of Gauguin, where a stockbroker abandons hearth and home to become a painter in Tahiti. If the black-souled Kurtz’s love of art was supposed to signal his connection to the rest of so-called civilisation, here the artist is “diabolical” as Tuymans puts it, a caddish bounder who muses on those strange beasts, women: ‘you can beat them till your arm aches and still they love you’. “There’s an element of romanticism but also disgust, which is typical for the Western hemisphere basically,” says Tuymans of the movie’s take on his profession.
Tuymans may now have realised what he estimates to be 550 works and be assured of his method, but he says, “there’s still a nervousness if it will work. The first three hours are hell. I can’t see anything. It’s when the contrasts come in that it starts to fall together. Then the joy sets in. It’s done with a tremendous amount of intensity and within a given time span that I set myself to keep that intensity going.”
Luc Tuymans: Allo! is on now at David Zwirner Mayfair until November 17.
Text by Skye Sherwin