Review of Luc Tuymans: The Shore, David Zwirner, London

Luc Tuymans returns to David Zwirner, London, for the second time with a new body of work, The Shore. Drawing upon a diverse cross-section of subjects including a Japanese cannibal, footage from a British World War II film and portraits by Henry Raeburn, Tuymans’ work silently glides from subject to subject. However, the longer the viewer spends with the paintings, the more you are forced to confront topical socio-cultural and historical issues.

On the ground floor, the exhibition unfolds into three small portraits. These pieces are re-workings of three portraits of esteemed Scottish enlightenment figures: William Robertson (2014), John Robison (2014) and John Playfair (2014), which were originally painted by Henry Raeburn. The paintings, glazed in a digital art like abstraction, are manoeuvred by a brushwork that is honest and unforgiving, reminiscent of Rembrandt in areas and which epitomize the very nature of class driven academia.

Tuymans came across the original portraits on a visit to the art collection of the University of Edinburgh just prior to the 2014 independence referendum. He found in the works “an element of disruption” that matched the political climate at that time. The artist reflected this by first capturing them on an iphone, before blowing up the images and printing them out and rendering them through painting. The resulting distortion, through areas of pixilation and breakdowns into segments of primary colour, are heightened by Tuymans’ refusal to use white or black. In place of white an icy blue washes over the images rendering them as isolated castaways.

The class indifference that isolated the figures, that sought them as radicals, was re-ignited by the Scottish independence referendum and is countered crudely by Cloud (2014). A tall, sickly beige canvas, which, perpendicular to the three portraits, acts as an invisible barrier as it looks down across the gaze of each portrait. The painting sees a dainty cloud as it blissfully drifts over mock Tudor rooftops. It comes from a cropped section of wallpaper from the Balmoral Hotel where Tuymans had tea during his Edinburgh visit. The wallpaper he proclaims symbolizes the “disgust we have for the class society!”

The second floor presents a dramatic departure for Tuymans in The Shore (2014). A large horizontal canvas looms with a captivating darkness. Whitish figures occupy a thin sliver of land in the centre of the image. The work is transposed from the opening scenes of the colonially-inspired film A Twist of Sand (1968), where the unidentifiable figures are about to be executed by an unknown source. The impending doom so solemnly captured, sees humankind at its most brutal echoing the manner in which conflicts and genocide is splashed across digital platforms as a weapon to induce fear.

To its right a small blue-hued portrait Issei Sagawa (2014), chillingly reminds us that not all threats of evil stem from foreign conflict. Issei Sagawa is a Japanese cannibal who ate his fellow student, Renée Hartevelt, at the Sorbonne University in Paris in 1981. He was extradited to Japan and, following his prison sentence, is now free and even enjoys a cult celebrity status. In the image he is wearing a strange helmet and mask, poised in a disturbingly calm manner. When combined with The Shore, it capitalizes on the isolation we feel as we question just what are we, even I truly capable of?

It becomes evidently clear, that through the very nature of Tuymans’ process of appropriating from photographic imagery, abstracting it and then re-working it through mind and hand, he draws upon a lack of sincerity and belief in photographic imagery today. Painting works with time and through time, it stalls a moment and can be left lingering within the artist’s for a prolonged period of time before it is finally realized. In this, a painting entertains a core, habitual truth, one that an iphone or imagery from a computer screen can never possibly convey.

Luc Tuymans until 2 April, David Zwirner, 24 Grafton Street, London, W1S 4EZ.

William Davie

1. Bedroom, 2014, Oil on canvas, 63 x 82 5/8 x 1 3/4 inches (159.9 x 209.8 x 4.5 cm).