Gallery  July 17, 2023  Howard Halle

Truth and Fiction Collide In Luc Tuymans Show at David Zwirner

Courtesy of David Zwirner

Installation view, Luc Tuymans: The Barn, David Zwirner, New York, May 11—July 21, 2023


In 1844, Henry Fox Talbot published the very first book of photographic reproductions, the most important development since Gutenberg’s invention of movable type. In contrast to his fellow photography pioneer, Louis Daguerre, whose process involved the use of photosensitized silver-plated copper sheets, Talbot had found a way to print photographs on paper: While Daguerre’s images were unique, Talbot’s had opened the door to mass media as we know it today. 

His achievement would ultimately re-shape the world into one where reality is conditioned, and even subsumed, by the surfeit of widely distributed images that surrounds us—a glut enabled by technologies that go way beyond anything Talbot could have imagined. 

© Luc Tuymans. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner

Luc Tuymans, Abe, 2022


These developments, with all their ambiguities and distortions, have long been the subject of exploration by Belgian artist Luc Tuymans whose large-scale works are currently on view in “The Barn,” an exhibition at David Zwirner

While Tuymans creates paintings, his works are photo-based, and taken from fugitive source materials meant to distance viewer from meaning.

Tuymans’s art has always marked the spot where memory and history, truth and fiction collide, and if that sounds a bit like German artist Gerhard Richter, well, Tuymans, who is well over a generation younger, does owe a considerable debt to him. Both are painters who deal with how photography and its derivatives are just as likely to conceal as reveal historical events and collective trauma, though having grown up under Hitler and Communism, Richter’s experience with the same is more lived than received.  


© Luc Tuymans. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner

Luc Tuymans, Bob, 2022


Both also employ the medium of painting, known for unalloyed subjectivity to question the supposed objectivity of photography, which Talbot called “the pencil of nature.” Thanks to its migration online, however, that implement has been vigorously erasing any consensus on what is and isn’t fact, an issue Tuymans drills down into for this show.

Tuymans’s canvases start with photographs taken with his cellphone, including several stills from YouTube. Among other bits of internet jetsam, the works include a hot air balloon with a smiley face traversing the sky (Smiley, 2022); a blurred close-up of the face of an animatronic  Abraham Lincoln from the stage show Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln at Disneyland, glowing as if captured by an infrared camera (Abe, 2022); and TV Sunday painting guru, Bob Ross, with his trademark nimbus of hair lit by studio lights (Bob, 2022).

© Luc Tuymans. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner

Luc Tuymans, Smiley, 2022


Several works in the show continue Tuymans’s navigation of themes of violence and fascism such as Bucha, 2022, which shows the uncovering of a mass grave in the Ukrainian village of Bucha—evidence of atrocities committed by Russians during their occupation of the village.

The show is Tuymans’ seventeenth at David Zwirner, marking a relationship with the gallery that dates to its beginnings in the early 1990s, when it was a far more modest shop than the art-world behemoth it has become. If you were to wind back the clock to that first outing in 1994, though, you’d find it remarkably consistent with his latest. Then as now, they are limned with abbreviated brush marks straddling a line between choppy and dappled—rather like some sort of a Photorealistic version of Post-Impressionism. Still, Tuyman’s new paintings possess a marked difference in the way they use brighter colors than the desaturated palette of previous works.

Courtesy of David Zwirner

Installation view, Luc Tuymans: The Barn, David Zwirner, New York, May 11—July 21, 2023


Two entries best summarize the show. The Barn, 2022, after which the show takes its name, is a painting of a barn that is, in fact, a cellphone screengrab, replete with an array of thumbnail images beneath. Polarisation, 2022, is a set of four paintings of what appear to be red and blue starbursts against a white background, firework-like images that are actually visualizations of data tracking the polarization of the US Congress over six decades by showing how likely it is that representatives will vote along party lines. Like Bucha, the work evinces the kind of nod to current events that Tuymans regularly makes. Turned 90 degrees from the originals, they resemble cancer cells metastasizing within the body politic. 

Ultimately, “The Barn” suggests that the same metaphor of metastasization could be applied to the millions of images parked on peoples’ phones or coursing through the web, whose indiscriminate, overabundant presence is part of a larger trend towards diluting social cohesion while concentrating the powers that divide.  

“Luc Tuymans: The Barn” is on view at David Zwirner, 537 West 20th Street, New York, New York, through July 21, 2023.

About the Author

Howard Halle

Howard Halle is a writer and artist who has exhibited his work in the United States and Europe. Between 1981 and 1985, he was Curator of The Kitchen's Gallery and Performance Art series. From 1995 through 2020, he was Chief Art Critic for Time Out New York. He lives and works in Brooklyn.

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