He is known for working a few steps removed from his source material, usually beginning with a photograph or a found picture that he manipulates on a computer, then re-renders as a ghostly, washed-out image on a canvas. Touching indirectly on grand themes of war, violence, and memory, Tuymans’s barely-there images convey a deep distrust with the historical record.
This muted quality fits aptly within the theme of the 2016 Montreal Biennial, curated by Philippe Pirotte, which is based on the French writer Jean Genet’s play Le Balcon (1956). Genet’s story takes place in a brothel while a revolution rages outside in a nameless city. The violence of Tuymans’s imagery also generally takes place beyond the frame—in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, for example, he famously painted a large, quiet still life, suspended in white space. A similar omission of violence is evident in his depictions of empty gas chambers, or faded portraits of prisoners of war.
The content of Tuymans’s biennial works is
similarly elusive, the museum space depicted within them resembling a barren
mausoleum. “The idea of Le Balcon, something that is staged—this is a
very nihilistic point, because it’s really empty,” says Tuymans. “And this is
also like a non-place,” he continues, referring to the space in his paintings.
With their oblique reference to Qatar, a Muslim country with ties to Islamic
extremism, the spare minimalism of Tuymans’s Doha paintings makes them appear
almost like an anti-dogma—the emptiness of a prophecy, as he explains. The
smaller painting of a ferocious dog, meanwhile, hints at the potential for violence
within religious dogma.
withdrawn aspect of these works is accentuated in the Montreal museum, as they
sit opposite those of Nigerian, L.A.-based artist
, whose portraits of individuals are composed of collaged material. Her figures are composites—containers of projected information and narrative content, expressions of identity as overdetermined by our media culture. Tuymans’s work, by contrast, is absent of content or figures. “I made Philippe put that work in the space, because I think it reverberates very well,” says Tuymans of Akunyili Crosby’s painting, “and in that sense the work I’ve made is sort of an antidote to the—I won’t say baroque, but overly informed work.”