The dark world of the Belgian artist Luc Tuymans is the focus of David Zwirner Gallery’s current show, entitled ‘The Shore’, comprised of ten works that hang quietly within the sizeable Mayfair spaces. You would be forgiven for initially feeling underwhelmed by the small size of some of the paintings or by Tuyman’s mostly subdued colour palette against the bright, light setting. Yet this is subtly contrasted against Tuymans’ depictions of typically heavy themes, such as melancholy, isolation and claustrophobia.
Tuymans is well known for using photographs or online material as a starting point to his paintings. The three small works in the opening room, such as ‘Willliam Robertson’ (2014), portray the close-up faces of three Scottish enlightenment thinkers, who were originally painted by the 17th-century Scottish artist, Henry Raeburn. Being fascinated by Raeburn’s works on a trip to Ghent as a teenager, Tuymans returned to the artist’s works before the Scottish independence referendum of 2014, wanting to capture the air of political and social disruption that gripped the nation. Tuymans photographed the Raeburn portraits, before printing them out and photographing them again.
The result is an uncanny one. The faces, blurred and almost unrecognisable, appear squashed as they take up the whole canvas. Exuding a certain illusory quality reminiscent of the light expelled from computer screens, the works remind us of Tuymans’ technical approach to producing the image. What’s more, tinted blue flesh tones come to the fore to exude an eerie, spiritual quality, as though Tuymans presents a fading melancholic memory. These entropic forces mean that the soft forms and tones are sinister rather than meek and pallid, especially in relation to two landscape paintings that hang nearby. It seems that the point of ‘Wallpaper’ (2014), and ‘Cloud’ (2014), is their blandness as they half-heartedly present features, such as an obelisk or a cloud. The fact they inspired by the wallpaper of a luxury Edinburgh hotel suggests Tuymans’ unease with that particular class aesthetic.
From wallpaper to Enlightenment ethics on the gallery’s ground floor, David Zwirner invites you to ascend the grand staircase to explore Tuymans’ concern for Raeburn’s contemporary, Francisco Goya. Well known for exploring Europe’s memories of World War II or Ku Klux Klan leaders, Tuymans here presents a literal and metaphorical dark work, entitled ‘The Shore’ (2014). Goya’s fantastical realities of fear and horror emanate from the near-blackness of the large canvas while a thin strip of light cuts the canvas in two, illuminating the last moments of a German submarine crew before they are gunned down. Tuymans forces us to engage with their loneliness and doomed fate.
Similarly, ‘Issei Sagawa’ (2014) depicts a blurred vision of Sagawa, a Japanese man who completed time in prison for killing and eating a fellow student at the Sorbonne University in Paris in the early 1980s. Tuymans’s gestural brushwork smudges the features so that we only get a sense of the character; this lack of detail means Sagawa is kept at a distance, intensifying the action of cannibalism in our minds.
Switching back to the commonplace, the show closes with ‘Bedroom’, (2014). This shows a minimal interpretation of a light as seen from the perspective of the artist’s own bed. Having just grappled with themes of human destruction we are then invited to consider Tuymans’s personal space. However ‘Bedroom’ offers limited details. The light depicted – light being an idea that has played an important role in Tuymans’s career – echoes the illumination in ‘The Shore’ but we are left with no biographical detail and the surface is nearly monochrome. At the same time as being invited into his space, we are kept at a distance, which indicates the sheer ordinariness of the room.
The show’s pinnacle work may be ‘The Shore’ owing to its size and darkness compared to the rest, yet the show’s strength is Zwirner’s exceptionally bright spaces that brings to the fore, and reinforce, Tuymans’ delicate way of painting major historical figures and events. As the tone of the show undulates between the extraordinary and the familiar, tension between the works increases so that what at first seems like an unfilled gallery show becomes one that successfully presents Tuymans’ relationship with painting and his response to world tensions.