Tuymans’ recent show at Zeno-X gallery, Antwerp continued his use of restrained colour and studied brushwork to display various genres, to define painting by its reluctance or rarity in conforming to classes of picture. In this he belongs to a wider trend that emerges in the mid 80s and exchanges Neo-Expressionism and strident metaphor for more literal and elaborate iconography. The shift in a sense returns painting to the maintenance of genres, but genres now are detected across an array of media and paintings are less concerned with print attributes there than with a shared world. See also Posts 5, 6, 11 and 16.
Tuymans’ path is distinctive in that it avoids pastiche and caricature, shuns virtuosity for cursory drawing, broad, usually lateral brushwork. Initial influences are difficult to detect, but in the late 70s he starts from what might be movie stills or historical anecdote (a variant on print sources) and the years 1982-5 were spent working on short films, then to return to painting with a radically schematic approach, possibly influenced by Neo-Expressionism, but on a markedly reduced scale, largely ignoring the figure. Works from 1985-90 do however take up Germanic themes, as in Schwarzheide (1986) Gas Chamber (1986) and Our New Quarters (Thereseinstadt) (1986) and in doing so also claim iconography associated with stills and movies.
Other works maintain the perspective and framing of long lens photography in striped down studies of holiday and tourist venues, (perhaps suggest the influence of Raoul DeKeyser) while works such as Sealed Room (1990) reduce the room to stark tonalities with desultory drawing and brushwork, assemble a kind of generic or impersonal interior – the black window or mirror registering a wall (in the left panel) the desk and bed (in the centre panel) the angles to the top and bottom of the dark shape (in the right panel) keying a door or cupboard ajar. It is not a summary of photographic tonalities that counts here, but painting’s summary use for them in summoning the room – a kind of room before print or painting. The casual, even contemptuous painting clearly carries an attitude toward the genre, but as later work refines tonalities with muted colour, the sense becomes more one of diffidence or detachment.
In the 90s Tuymans underlines this attitude in addressing other genres. The best known and most potent draw upon medical illustration (photographic and otherwise) such as Der diagnostiche Blick IV (1992) which typically preserves little detail to the face, certainly nothing of obvious symptoms, but crucially renders the flesh in pallid browns, models with alacrity the bare minimum to a specimen record under searching frontal lighting. The effect, as often noted, is a sickly or wan picture (and by inference, painting), as much as a picture of the sickly or wan and while framing and title identify a genre, painting draws the symptoms out into an expressive waywardness, stretches the genre beyond illustration.
Medical illustration is further pursued to details of afflictions and again casual modelling and drab ochres abstract the images, signal an indifference or reluctance, as in Lungs (1998). Other stereotypical or generic images, such as Body (1990) A Flemish Intellectual (1996) Yzer Tower (1995) The Heritage (1995) and The Heritage II (1995) all signal familiar icons while retreating to brooding abstraction. With the turn of the century, Tuymans notably tightens drawing and facture, allows high key tone and pasty palette to carry his detachment, so that Portrait (2000) looks to belong to earlier work, while Lumumba (2003) orSecretary of State (2005) now signal their wider media status through distinctive cropping, rely upon a ragged or fumbling brushwork to sample the genre. Whether such work dissipates or refines his style remains moot. This is also true of works that deal in the lighting of flash photography for documenting obscure details, as in Dirt Road (2003)M Pigeons (2001) and Park (2005).
Finally abstraction also arises in works where a distinction between model and object are obscured. Tuymans often uses sculpture, such as Ignatius Loyola (2006) and Untitled (2001) or more ambiguously, toy models such as Mayhem (2003) where scale and other qualities to the object are confused or lost in the painting’s treatment, giving the genre an expressive ambiguity. In shifting to a display of iconographic features or genre, painting hardly surrenders traditional formal questions. On the contrary, since genre is discerned across a range of media, questions of how painting captures or abstracts such genres, are answered on just these formal terms. Tuymans’ contribution has been to demonstrate that these do not necessarily fall into pastiche and eclecticism; that more elusive and fundamental qualities to genres ask as much of painting.