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Luc Tuymans The Heritage II, 1995

© ArtNet Worldwide 1997

The Heritage I, 1995

luc tuymans

at david zwirner

by Peter von Ziegesar

For centuries, European artists and writers have taken the grand tour of the American states and followed up with works that detail their views of our brash and incomprehensible culture. Typically, the European intellectual will come pre-armed with a set of impressions of our country that actual contact will find very difficult to dislodge. The Belgian painter Luc Tuymans' new series of paintings, entitled "The Heritage," is very much in that self-assured tradition. Suddenly catch yourself reflected in a mirror and you may be surprised at how you look. Perhaps in the same vein I found the image reflected back from Tuymans' figurative mirror difficult to recognize, more foreign than familiar, more distant than near. I couldn't find the taste of the America I know (and occasionally disparage) in the paintings, what I found instead was the flavor of an interested but very opinionated European sensibility that had been ported along thousands of miles of unfamiliar roadways without essential alteration. If Tuymans' images have more of the flavor of bratwurst and lager than of Coney dogs and suds, nevertheless they offer up an absorbing take on what the European left currently thinks of our bloated country. It is not a reassuring or flattering sight. Tuymans' paintings use a blurred, truncated imagery and extremely curtailed pallet of dusty grays and muted earth tones, a style that immediately brings to mind Gerhard Richter's dark newspaper-photo-like series of paintings about the prison deaths of Red Army Faction members (entitled "18. Oktober 1977"). Like Richter's works, the paintings of Tuymans' "Heritage" series are laced with political irony, while they maintain a great deal of ambiguity and psychological play by withholding visual information from the viewer. Sketched quickly, with few strokes, the works often seem self-framed with off-center bands of dark pigment, as if the images were reflections in leaning mirrors--bringing to mind the typical traveler's habitué of cheap motel rooms and borrowed apartments. Tuymans' previous work has been about nationalism, about the symbols that people and nations give out that obliterate and hide personality. This concern is apparent in Heritage I, a faintly lined canvas of two baseball hats, one above the other, brushed in ashen gray. The faces below the hats remain blank ovals; it is the hats themselves that--to a European--denote Americanism and the bland, overwhelming capitalist enterprise that baseball represents. Of course, one can easily find a discrepancy here: in post-baseball-strike America, it would be hard to find an enthusiastic constituency for baseball as a national emblem, but perhaps such distinctions are lost on a European visitor. Tuymans' American flag depicted as a neon sign partakes of another symbol of American consumerism--the neon itself--that seems a bit dated, since neon no longer sells consumer goods, electronic media does. It was more interesting for me to think of the picture as representing a Dan Flavin sculpture, a nonexistent art object through which Tuymans might not only lampoon a national symbol, but an art movement (Pop) that has become emblematic throughout the world of American culture. Tuymans has said with the Heritage series that he wanted to create "a constant uneasiness, like a constant noise," and in this he has succeeded. Using ambiguity and quirky choice of subject matter as his tools, he builds a series of disquieting images the way Hitchcock sets the mood of his most stark horror films, linking one mundane detail to another. A view of presidential craniums at Mount Rushmore, in Heritage VII, looks like an abandoned shop window display. A close image of a wooden peasant's bucket bound in brass has, at first, pleasant associations, until one remembers what peasants are doing to each other in Bosnia. A featureless worker in a factory handles liquids of a poisonous orange color. And the face of a decades- dead CIA operative who may or may not have predicted the JFK assassination stares out at us with the insouciant smile of a used car salesman. In his strongest paintings Tuymans allows a dreamlike, almost macabre sense of humor to come to the fore. In Heritage VIII, for example, which appears to be Tuymans' take on the recent American obsession with child sexual abuse, a small fluffy, toy-like being appears to be giving oral sex to a young man stripped to the waist. Another childlike image, of a puppet in a window, or on television, wagging its arm in a jittery blur, invokes a strange, pre-verbal nostalgia. Like others in this series, it evokes an appealing sense of mystery that seems to emanate from a mute stranger who is just passing through. PETER VON ZIEGESAR is a writer and filmmaker who lives in New York.