A day after the opening of the current Luc Tuymans exhibition in London, DAMN° had the chance to sit down with the Belgian artist and discuss his work, as well as how it is being a painter in the early 21st century. Inevitably, the subject of the recent court case against him for plagiarism arose, nicely adding colour to the conversation. Given that the use of images circulating in the media and elsewhere is, and always has been, at the heart of his practice as a painter, the matter is all the more intriguing. Regardless of how you look at it, Tuymans is an artist of our time.
Luc Tuymans has an eye for images that are charged with symbolic power. He is the type of artist that reads our time and picks out images that are significant and worth reconsidering. That is where his practice as a painter begins. On the occasion of his exhibition The Shore, Tuymans took us on a tour through the David Zwirner Gallery in London. The first works on display are three small portraits based on those by the Scottish painter Henry Raeburn. Tuymans took pictures of these paintings with his phone, printed them, enlarged them, re-photographed them, and then painted the results. His versions can still be called portraits, although the psychological distance from these figures is significantly different. It is not the kind of portrait through which you get to know somebody, but rather through which you see somebody, shifting the perception of the depicted person. The faces seem too close, and are even unpleasant in colour. All three of these faces have a blue glow, similar to the light emitted by a computer screen, contrasting with the orange-pink flesh tones.
To Tuymans, it has always been clear that he is not 'original'; he knew this long before a judge in his hometown of Antwerp convicted him of plagiarism. He has been choosing photos and digital images as a starting point for his paintings for more than 20 years. But four years after he painted a Belgian Politician, based on a newspaper photo depicting Jean-Marie Dedecker, the photographer filed a complaint. "I offered to mention the source", Tuymans explains. "I've always been open about where I find my imagery. But the photographer didn't think that was enough. So then it went to court." The judge thought the painting was too close to the photo, in terms of its composition and the framing of the image. But this judge never saw the painting in real life. So the only 'evidence' was a reproduction, as absurd as that may sound. The whole process was thus based on photographic images, while the issue at stake was the difference between a painting (an artwork) and a press photo. It becomes even more ironic if you consider that Tuymans's work has always involved research into the reliability of images, and the difference between paintings and other types of images. What could actually be regarded as an ode to a photograph has turned into a felony. "It's insane", Tuymans laments. It is clear to him that it was the particular newspaper–which he is not allowed to mention by name–that started the rumour and urged the photographer to take action. "In this part of Belgium, which is centre-right oriented, people have hated me for decades." Tuymans is determined to fight the case on appeal. "It will become an iconic painting", he says. "We will fight the case. There is too much at stake now… The law is behind by 20 years and should be adapted to acknowledge the present-day use of images."