David Zwirner is pleased to present an exhibition of new paintings by Luc Tuymans, on view at the gallery's 525 West 19th Street space.
Belgian artist Luc Tuymans is widely seen as having contributed to the revival of painting in the 1990s. His sparsely-colored, figurative works speak in a quiet, restrained, and at times unsettling voice, and are typically painted from preexisting imagery which includes photographs and video stills. His canvases, in turn, become third-degree abstractions from reality and often appear slightly out-of-focus, as if covered by a thin veil or painted from a failing memory. There is almost always a darker undercurrent to what at first appear to be innocuous subjects: working within series, Tuymans has, in this way, explored diverse and sensitive topics including the Holocaust, the effects of images from 9/11, the ambiguous utopia of the Disney Corporation, and the colonial history of his native Belgium, among others.
The works in the present exhibition, Corporate, examine the phenomenon of the corporation. Influenced, in part, by the work of American media theorist Douglas Rushkoff, which looks at the roots of modern-day corporate culture, the exhibition continues Tuymans’s interest in power structures and collective history.¹ Rushkoff observes how the purpose of corporatism from the onset was to suppress lateral interactions between people or small companies, instead redirecting any created revenue to a select group of investors. Yet most people, even corporate leaders, have little awareness of these underlying motivations or how automatically they are compelled by them. They identify with corporations and ultimately surrender their free agency in the process.
Taking their points of departure in the types of lighting found in corporate settings, Tuymans's works consider how abstract, formal structures impact decision-making and ultimately shape everyday lives. A seminal painting from the series, Corporate recalls the fleet of England's East India Company, one of the world’s first corporate entities from the early 17th century. Against a bleak sky, and kept in subtle shades of gray and purple, Tuymans portrays a large galleon floating on still water. Its many sails are swaying in the wind, but the overall impression is one of disconcerting quiet and calm. Historically overflowing with rarities from the Far East, it drifts here like a ghost ship on a silent, invasive mission.
Painted from a monochrome, black model of one of the Company's ships, the painting evokes the historical roots of corporatism, which date back to the proliferation of towns in the Middle Ages: the growing independence of burghers challenged the feudal system's monopoly over commercial transactions, and corporations were eventually established as a way for the aristocracy to participate in the new economy. Typically receiving military protection and special services from the Crown, they were granted the right to impose trade restrictions, thus limiting the individual's freedom to do business. In Corporate, Tuymans’s use of blurred brushstrokes becomes a formal device that indicates how corporations have come to take on a virtual, abstracted, disempowering, and dehumanizing specter.
Other works exhibited examine the staged settings of conference rooms, public lectures, and discussion forums. Panel depicts a conversation between the artist himself and other art world actors. Reduced to basic, almost abstract forms, the figures are bathed in white light, whose artificial and almost supernatural quality mirrors the carefully staged format of the discussion. Like the electronic image of the television screen, the light seems to emanate from the speakers themselves, flattening out the group and suggesting how practices of corporate culture seep into artistic contexts, habitually regarded as creatively autonomous.
Another painting, Butterfly, depicts a moth with its attractive, complex pigmentation. The result of millions of years of evolution, the pattern seeks to confuse and mislead would-be predators, while the moth can also appear wholly camouflaged with its wings folded. Such qualities, along with the insect’s attraction to artificial light, become synonymous with the mass media, which acts on behalf of corporations to persuade consumers to buy particular products, sometimes with deliberate misinformation. In Anonymous, Tuymans presents a portrait of a person from an advertisement, only he has omitted the face. This anonymous but strangely enigmatic person becomes a stand-in for a dystopian view of the individual in modern society: uniform, interchangeable, and bland.
Conspicuously handmade, Tuymans’s paintings seem to offer a welcome antidote towards their subject matter. Yet, at the same time, their smooth surfaces and blurred painterly touch could also be seen as referring to the way in which the media and advertisements in particular subtly manipulate consumer behavior and desire. It is within this ambiguity that Tuymans’s works operate: like abstractions of abstractions, they are history paintings of the mass media age.
¹ See, in particular, Douglas Rushkoff, Life Inc.: How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take It Back (New York: Random House, 2009).