Luc Tuymans On Tenderness and Mépris

Luc Tuymans On Tenderness and Mépris

The painter speaks about commercialism in the contemporary art world, and the cinematic inspirations behind his new exhibition

The painter speaks about commercialism in the contemporary art world, and the cinematic inspirations behind his new exhibition

Text: William Simmons

Le Mépris, Luc Tuymans’ exhibition of new paintings at David Zwirner Gallery, takes its evocative title from a Godard film of the same name. Translated as Contempt, the film stars Brigitte Bardot and takes on themes of art, commercialism, and gender politics. Tuymans mirrors Godard’s serious, but irreverent, take on these issues with a group of paintings that speak volumes in their quietude. Taken from Polaroids and other found imagery, Le Mépris combines mysterious paintings of a parade in his mother’s hometown, standing water in local canals, and the eponymous painting of the fireplace of the Villa Malaparte, where Godard’s film was shot. It may sound scattered, but what it coalesces into could only be described as a kind of burlesque, which shows you just enough of what you crave, and traps you in an unending search to see more.

I was struck by your relationship to cinema, which you have talked about extensively. What kept popping up for me is the part in the prologue of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011) wherein Breughel’s painting The Hunters in the Snow (1565) is the backdrop while countless dead birds fall from the sky. I see your work along similar lines—a visually based melodrama.

Luc Tuymans There’s another movie with Breughel’s work that predates von Trier, and that’s Solaris (1976) by Andrei Tarkovsky. I was shocked to be with my wife in the cinema watching this film. You see all these images of Breughel as the central character proclaims, “You don’t go to the universe; the universe comes to you,” which is a mind-blowing thing in relation to Breughel. With Brueghel, there’s an element of journalism, in that it’s the Renaissance, but it’s a different Renaissance [the Northern Renaissance]. It has to do with humanism.

So, Lars von Trier is similar. I wouldn’t say it is melodramatic, but there’s a religious backdrop. There’s that element of guilt and the fact that we have lost the idea of eros, not in the sexual sense, but in the truest sense, in society. That’s what makes Lars von Trier quite important and interesting. He can still make films like Dogville (2003) and people just leave. It’s fantastic. That was also the case with Le Mépris. They don’t make those films anymore, because they are too complicated. But they are also fabulous. Maybe there has been one epic since–There Will Be Blood (2007). In the same year, you had No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood. There you could see what the contemporary art world had not yet grasped–the specific element of, I wouldn’t say cynicism, but they’re definitely sardonic. That’s a quality that should be enhanced in contemporary art.

Luc Tuymans, Model, 2015, Oil on canvas, 47 1/2 x 47 5/8 inches (120.6 x 120.8 cm)

That’s a perfect way to describe your work in that it is very rare to find a contemporary artist who produces such different and polarizing opinions, even though what you are doing appears at first to be understated or minimal.

LT Cruelty lies among tenderness. The best torture is very tender. I’m much less involved in the photographic image, but the moving image has always been predominant in my work, especially since I come out of the television generation. The element of pause is important. The lens gave me the right distance that I didn’t have before. You need distance in order to create imagery. There’s a great similarity between film and painting because they are both about the approach to imagery, not so much taking imagery, like photography. They are very similar mediums, so you cannot really combine them. The big difference is that painting I can do on my own, and I don’t need a crew.

What I want to discuss with regard to your work is the legacy of Warhol, and his relationship to stock images and the narrative of celebrity. If you look at some of his Marilyn Monroe silkscreens, for instance, they often decompose to the point of being unrecognizable, which seems to be a touchstone of your work–that you might miss something by passing over your heavily fraught images.

LT People should not necessarily know what they are looking at or be totally informed, because I am a visual artist and the visual takes precedence. The only problem is that I work with already-represented imagery, which requires me to know what the images mean. Painting is a very slow medium. It’s a medium that works on your brain and your memory. When I did my show at the Tate Modern, there was a curator who hated my work and came and looked at it and hated it even more. But then he started to dream about the work, and he became the biggest fan! So that is the impact. Also, I am not my work and my work is not me. It is important to make that distinction. That element of detachment and the measure of the spectator’s distance from the imagery I make is basically how the imagery is going to be enacted. I was always very open about source material, because I didn’t want to be the kind of artist who sits in a corner and once in a while says something. But that made it so that, even if I paint a chair, it is going to be political, right? People are conditioned to think that there is always something behind, which I think is fine. I was born into a poignant distrust of imagery, even my own. We are surrounded by all these things, but they are also fabrications.

Luc Tuymans, Corso II, 2015, Oil on canvas, 77 1/4 x 60 1/8 inches (196.2 x 152.5 cm)

How do you balance the political element of the work with the fact that sometimes you are creating paintings that are unabashedly aesthetic or beautiful? Maybe the question is–how would you want that question to play out in art history?

LT That is something for art historians to decide upon. I also studied art history as a working student. First of all, I never saw it as a science. It remains very subjective. Art historians, such as those in the October [arguably the most influential art history journal of the last 40 years] school, have often tried to make art history into a process of deduction, but that does not function anymore. These ideas were important, there is no doubt about it, but you cannot hang on to that concept. So I think it will become harder and harder for art historians to think about what kind of legacy a contemporary artist will have. The legacy will never be the same as Velázquez or Goya; it must be different now. And most of the legacy will be fabricated during the lifetime of the artist. To be an artist now is quite inhumane because the expectations are extremely high. Being a young artist right now is about the most horrible thing you could be, because, first off, it is no longer kind, and now art is super market-driven. We valorize contemporary artists, but artists are isolated. In this huge world of the Internet and Wikipedia and access, everyone is getting specialized and weakened and isolated. A lot of the discourse in the art world has to do with misreading 1980s sociology, and nothing to do with reality. You can see stupidity growing around you.

Le Mépris is on display now through June 25 at the David Zwirner Gallery: 525 W 19th St, New York, NY 10011.

Credits: IMAGES COURTESY David Zwirner, New York/London

UP NEXT

Desiigner Releases "Panda" Music Video With Kanye West