Luc Tuymans: Birds of a Feather

Exhibit available in the Talbot Rice Gallery in Old College until December 18th.

Luc Tuymans is the kind of artist who you have heard of and who you know is supposed to be very talented, but whose work you have never actually seen in real life. This is unsurprising if you haven’t left Scotland frequently as this is his first solo exhibition in the country. The Belgian artist is known for figurative works which question ideas about history and memory, breaking through in the eighties with stark paintings about the Holocaust and World World II.

In the exhibition, Tuymans’ pieces are displayed alongside those of Henry Raeburn which, in terms of the different styles of painting, is quite startling. However, in person you see that the dark, impressive paintings one associates with Raeburn have a rough, almost modern edge created through bold brushstrokes, perhaps because he applied paint to his canvas without doing preliminary drawings first.

The way that Tuymans places Raeburn’s portraits of Scottish Enlightenment figures alongside his own modern paintings forces us to reexamine the portraits, unsettling their stronghold on the historical narrative of the Enlightenment. Indeed, the Enlightenment was a period that strongly encouraged citizens to engage with the world around them and think critically, and it seems Tuymans is inviting us to apply these mental processes to the historical paintings of Raeburn as well as his own contemporary work.

When walking into the gallery, one’s eye is automatically drawn to the large canvases of canaries on the far wall. The paint is thinly applied, with what can only be described as a studied nonchalance. The flat, childish colours of these three paintings creates an oddly chilling sense of artificiality. This contrasts directly with the scholarly Raeburn paintings on the adjacent wall, creating a strange tension between the works of the different artists.

Tuymans seems to have a great skill for evoking a certain mood within his work, perhaps suggesting the way that images can never be completely impartial, always being manipulated by the artist and even the subject to project a certain impression to the viewer. In addition, the series of images of table place settings adds an oddly eerie quality. Rather than evoking a warm domesticity the images of cutlery creates a sense of anonymity, of repetition and of the mundane. This communicates the gap between the object as represented through our eyes in real life and the object in image, a recurring theme of the exhibition.

Tuymans’ exhibition proves to be chilling and thought provoking, showing an interest in the way modern culture can dialogue with historical culture and question our perspective.

Image: guliverlooks

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