Luc Tuymans – Intolerance, exhibition at ALRIWAQ, Doha

Qatar is a country which rarely looks back, preferring to enjoy the prospect of its future. A combination of a traditionally peripatetic Bedouin population and restarts of infrastructure mean that little of the past is actually visible in its capital Doha. The Sheraton hotel, one of the first towers built in the city, looks like an alien ziggurat from another epoch but was only built in 1979. It seems an odd venue then, to host Luc Tuymans, a Belgian artist whose preoccupation is history and its remembrance.

In 2009 Tuymans toured with an exhibition entitled Against The Day, a name shared with a novel by Thomas Pynchon published three years earlier. That doff-capping is a hint to the deeper thematic considerations they share with evaluating the past, though Tuymans’ brushstrokes are often banal and indistinct, in contrast to the searing maximalism of Pynchon’s prose. Consider their diverging responses to 9/11. In 2014 Pynchon released Bleeding Edge, resplendent with typically colourful allusions to conspiracy theories, paranoia and allusions to the deadwood of early millennium popular culture, cf. the ‘Rachel’ haircut. Tuymans got into trouble for his responses to 9/11, a time of gratuitous soul-searching and hand-wringing across the arts, as he made conceptual meta-responses to the event. Firstly there was an enormous, banal still life he exhibited at the Documenta in 2002. Tuymans’ painting called into question the very capabilities of the art form, particularly when accessing the event in emotionally raw short-term memory.  And then a year later he painted one of his masterpieces, Mayhem, which features in this exhibition. Mayhem almost looks like a still life, with barrels and tyre piles dotted across the canvas, but the ramps towards the left of the picture seem reminiscent of the skeleton of a plane: its fuselage, and wings outspread. The turning point of this century is not presented with gravitas, but via a dance of suggestion. Its panoramic perspective also puts me in mind of a famous painting by a Low Countries cousin of Tuymans’; Hieronymous Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights. Whereas that triptych is read as a narrative with a code to decipher, Tuymans suspends a moment in time and leaves these fundamental outlines – an aeroplane, a cross, a prone man with a gun – ready to be ‘coloured in’ by those who choose how history is remembered.

Indeed, Tuymans’ technique shares qualities between the act of applying paint to canvas and the act of remembering. His paintings have a washed out, watercolour-like quality and favour dull sheen rather than particular detail. He presents images from the worst of (in)humanity, Nazism and Belgian imperialism, but with a deadpan functionality which raises the question of whether those acts anything remarkable to them at all – whether what we might call ‘evil’ is in fact a species norm. He experimented with film-making for a period in the 1980s, and the skills he picked up from that are obvious: he is one of the best painters at cropping, of framing the subject (particularly faces) in a confrontational close-up. Commissioned especially for this exhibition, The Arena I-VI tries to integrate the inherent advantage cinema possesses over painting: the ability to view the same scene from multiple angles. The details of what are painted in that cycle are indistinct, but there is a feeling of aggression and ritual, perhaps a similar depiction of mood from the uprisings and displacement this decade in the Middle East and Africa as he initially did with 9/11 in Mayhem. Tuymans’ art is amoral, it shows humanity for what it is. If we murder and mutilate each other, then that is what we are. Art does not dig us out of the killing fields but shows us how deep the holes go.

One of the delights in his recent output is a series shown off in the exhibition Corporate in 2010, some of which are displayed here. These are thoughtful and hilarious pieces, which alternate between ribbing at the omnipresent tedium of corporate culture a la The Stanley Parable, and aggressively lit, overexposed pieces which recall Francis Bacon’s infernal popes. There have been many attempts to critique such a concept not just in art, but in all fields, and yet few of them make such an impression as these. Given that many of Tuymans’ paintings are of the seemingly innocuous bureaucrats who facilitated the worst convulsions of the 20th century, this is unsurprising.

Not even domestic four walls hold safety in Tuymans’ hands. His interiors have a quiet Hopperesque terror to them which arises from perspectives askew, where walls appear more suddenly than you realise and Tuymans’ cropping places objects in such a way that you feel things are being concealed from your view. The artist has described how ‘most of my imagery has the quality of the silence before the storm’, and his interiors are the best example of that. That washed out, filtered quality means that his paintings are different from most works in that they are a reconstruction, rather than a construction. The paintings have committed themselves to a memorial interpretation before the viewer has the privilege to do so. Some paintings ripple off the canvas, because of a vibrant use of colour or because of dynamic impasto. But Tuymans’ appear to recede even further into the wall, as if concealed behind a layer of atmospheric dust.

For all that is worth praising in the significant collection Qatar has acquired for this exhibition, it is a failure. Doha has imported the materials necessary for a great show but despite the curatorial assistance of Lynne Cooke it is disappointing because there is no organisation to it at all – rooms seem to be arranged with random times and styles. For an artist as wide-ranging as Tuymans, this isn’t good enough. Moreover, while it is my personal preference to have text accompanying each painting in the gallery rather than a handful in a leaflet, the exhibition has very little information on the artist, his upbringing, his education, his collaborations, his nationality – quite something given how much a role knowledge of the past has in his work, given how much a simple prod can reveal a painting depicting something bland to be dripping in historical connotations – a prod I fear unenlightened spectators don’t receive. At the back of the gallery there is an impressive collection of preliminary sketches, but there is no elaboration on how these are worked up into the final pieces, or how the artist’s compositional process can be understood. While in Doha I also visited the wonderful Museum of Islamic Art, a delicately arranged selection of artifacts which presents Islamic art in all its differing styles, from Moorish Spain to Persia. That museum, without patronisation, holds your hand through surprises within what we might think familiar, and is a real asset to the growing city in promoting its native culture. ALRIWAQ on the other hand, seems happy to pay for the work and then sit on its walls. One of the few tidbits the leaflet does provide is to describe Tuymans as one of the most important figures in the revival of figurative painting, but that has no bearing on what is actually displayed. The architecture and design of the gallery is fine, and is impressively decorated on the outside according to who is exhibited within. Unfortunately, the staff seem entirely distant from the artwork.

The show is billed as a ‘retrospective’, but gives no account of Tuymans’ development. If anything, this exhibition is proof of how much a coherent narrative and careful hand is needed in curating, rather than just letting the paintings sit there. There are so many possibilities with Tuymans – for using contextual materials, for making you question your perception of media images, but the experience just felt lacking, either due to a lack of knowledge or interest from the people behind it. I’m hoping that this experience was just a one-off, and having done some research Sheikh Hassan has been an absolute pioneer at the Mathaf Museum of Modern Art in promoting works which have lacked a traditional audience in the Middle East. Admittedly while in the past Tuymans has said ‘for a show in a gallery, there must be a mental vacuum space where the show is conceptualized’, suggesting that he prefers a minimal approach, this show is simply too big, too haphazard, and too confusing for any viewer to conceptualize on their own.

ALRIWAQ, Al Corniche St, Doha, Qatar.



Mehdi Ghadyanloo – Perception, exhibition at Howard Griffin Gallery, Shoreditch.


Mehdi Ghadyanloo – Perception, 2015, installation view.

NB: This exhibition is now closed.

My parents moved house when I was four years old. My memory of the house I was born in is scarce to the point that I have no recollection of living there, but by a curious quirk of the brain I can remember vividly dreams that I had there. In one of them, I was scared to the point of running into my parents’ room after being assaulted by geometric shapes that crawled out of the walls like that bit with the moving letters in Sesame Street. Maybe it’s a moment of fancy, but that experience has always left me with a heightened affinity with the work of Surrealists, particularly those who interpose otherwise banal scenes with monolithic geometric shapes, with no commentary on their presence; they simply exist silently, unquestioned, with enormous symbolic weight. A great example is Paul Nash’s Equivalents for the Megaliths, which refuses to become an idyllic landscape painting as it reduces nature to its most simple constituent blocks. Resting squatly in the middle of the canvas, the shapes are not part of a narrative construction; they just are.

Mehdi Ghadyanloo’s paintings occupy the same territory as Nash’s banal fantasy, and are complemented very well by the dark, cavernous space created inside Shoreditch’s Howard Griffin Gallery. Ghadyanloo makes frequent hat-tips to the Surrealist school, but always on his own terms.

Mehdi Ghadyanloo - Logic of Metaphysics. 2015, 200x118cm, acrylic on canvas.

Mehdi Ghadyanloo – Logic of Metaphysics. 2015, 200x118cm, acrylic on canvas.

Logic of Metaphysics recalls Max Ernst’s Murdering Airplane but the 1920s vision of the aircraft as a turbulent instrument of destruction has been replaced by the eerily silent, almost still hover of an aluminium tube, a sawn-off shotgun in Ghadyanloo’s rendering that rains down death indiscriminately. The bright and minimal environments of his work are descended from De Chirico, whose subtle paintings with all their implications of dread are a welcome contrast to the impulse to excessiveness found in Dali.

The ubiquity of the bowler hat in the paintings of Rene Magritte finds a companion here in Ghadyanloo’s soldier hovering over the stairs in Imitation of Respect. Ghadyanloo lacks the Freudian overtones of his Surrealist forebears, but this is maybe the closest example as the toy-sized soldier is dwarfed by the staircase leading up to a narrow passageway which resembles a vagina, the kind of overwhelming female force with recurs in Magritte and Dali alike. A recurrent image is the cube. It hangs above the heads of children like the sword of Damocles, a testament to inexplicable danger that seems to be overcome in Destiny Riders, but the presence of birds of prey adds another layer of intangible terror and paranoia. The juxtaposition of innocence and danger in his portrayal of children shows a rare blending of political statement with recognition of some of the more universally contradictory feelings held in childhood.

Mehdi Ghadyanloo - Perception, 2015, installation view. Imitation of Respect is in the centre, Imitation of Sin on the right.

Mehdi Ghadyanloo – Perception, 2015, installation view. Imitation of Respect is in the centre, Imitation of Sin on the right.

His brushwork is breathtakingly effective in its simplicity; the varying reactions of the group on the stairs in Imitation of Sin can be discerned merely from the positioning of their arms, as a friend of mine pointed out – a closed-off fold here, a more open hands-on-hips pose there.

The exhibition shows off Ghadyanloo’s range of skills with different materials, as little resin sculptures are contained within little niches that, in conjunction with the stairs at the end of the gallery, transfigure it into a church-like space. The three dimensional quality of these works allows the feeling of suspended time to be stressed more than is possible on canvas. The exhibition describes Ghadyanloo’s murals – for which he is best known in Tehran, as they pepper the city’s buildings with tromp l’oeil wit – as a ‘shared public space for dreaming’. A deeply profound concept, and one which brings me back to the anecdote which kicked off this review. Ghadyanloo’s murals create a collective imaginative experience. Not to mention that living in a city is like living in a dream, particularly if, as in my case, your previous experience has been with much smaller places. Weird and wonderful tableaux pass by you. Decontextualised snippets of text and conversation float by you. While the city offers the promise of escaping into a large crowd, what stands out is your inability to do that – the number of people you walk past means that, through brutal probability, chances are you’ll bump into someone you already know, and probably wished to forget. The way in which people from your own past can be all gathered in a single location has always put me in mind of the arbitrary groups of people fused together in a dream. As William Wordsworth puts it in ‘Residence in London’, book VII of The Prelude:

     …the shapes before my eyes became
A second-sight procession, such as glides
Over still mountains, or appears in dreams…

The exhibition may now be closed, but Mehdi Ghadyanloo’s profile should be raised by his residency in East London, and will hopefully return soon. An artist tipping his hat to tradition while concentrating on present-day political issues. Howard Griffin did a marvellous job at converting the gallery space to complement the artist’s work, and are well worth a visit in their own right.

Howard Griffin Gallery, 189 Shoreditch High Street, London, E1 6HU. Nearest Tube: Shoreditch High Street.

Viviane Sassen: Analemma review (exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery)

Viviane Sassen: Analemma

Photographer’s Gallery, 18-18 Ramilles St, near Oxford Circus, London

Until 18th January

NOTE: Pictures were removed after the exhibition closed, as per the gallery’s request.

For this winter season, the Photographer’s Gallery in London is running two exhibitions of fashion photography in parallel, displaying selected works of Edward Steichen (1879-1973) and Viviane Sassen (1972-). Beyond their shared subject, what combines the two artists is an emphasis on movement. The spectre of the silver screen is never far away from Steichen’s gaze, as almost all of his models and portrait sitters loom with enormous Art Deco shadows, as if all have been captured through a film camera which freezes all of the great and the good in the middle of performance. The exhibition of Steichen’s works is interesting enough, but truly inspiring is the Analemma exhibition of Sassen’s work on the top floor, as the exhibition itself is in constant flux, so whereas Steichen’s sitters are framed pitch-perfectly as if on stage, Sassen’s models are movement personified. Steichen’s sitters tend to preside over their surroundings and illuminate them, whereas Sassen’s are inseparable from their background, interacting with it to create new shapes and volumes. This is brought to prominence through the looped soundtrack of Boards of Canada, one of many IDM acts who have used the disorienting freedom of sampling and synthesisers to create radical geometries (which will be the subject of an upcoming blog entry)

It is only a short step for Sassen’s works to go from embodying movement to become the embodiment of travel. On a purely pragmatic basis, this makes for very appealing magazine shoots; the excitement of discovering a new place, a new presentation of fashion is distilled into a momentum which points out of the page directly at the viewer. At times this invitation to enter an undiscovered and unknown world is reminiscent of De Chirico’s haunting Surrealist landscapes.

Giorgio De Chirico - Piazza D'Italia, 1913. Notice how the painting's use of line compels the reader into the scene, albeit with an accompanying sense of dread at what may be hidden in the shadows.

Giorgio De Chirico – Piazza D’Italia, 1913. Notice how the painting’s use of line compels the reader into the scene, albeit with an accompanying sense of dread at what may be hidden in the shadows.

De Chirico’s work is uncanny for its ability to conjure a world at once conjured from the imaginary liminal space between dream and nightmare while also invoking a specific geographical arena, namely the whitewashed walls and sunbaked streets of the Mediterranean. Sassen’s invitations to alternative worlds are no less direct, but held with a distant coolness, instead of quiet terror.

Travel is never just the anodyne setting of a scene for Sassen; the setting and the model are in symbiosis. The movement of the model is equivalent to the displacement the viewer undergoes by glimpsing one of her pictures from the comfort of, one supposes, a more refined urban locale. Sassen has often commented on the particular gravity she holds towards the African landscape in which she grew up, and this is another facet of the dynamism of her pictures; there is little sense of the experienced adult objectively viewing the landscape, but a more childlike enjoyment of the landscape on its own terms. The photographer is participant, rather than observer. It would be misleading to assume an Afrocentricism in all of Sassen’s works though, as the In Bloom pieces shown in this article are evocative of the lengthy tulip fields of the Netherlands, where Sassen has been based for most of her life.

Tulips in South Holland © Alessandro Vecchi/Wikipedia

Tulips in South Holland (C) Alessandro Vecchi/Wikipedia

Her convictions about Africa are undeniable, as its central place at most of her previous exhibitions attests. But her use of the flower motif shows that she can look wider for inspiration in the natural world than she is usually given credit for. The expansive colour palette Sassen employs also helps to highlight how absurd discrimination by skin colour truly is. With her use of colours as bold as the ones displayed in a piece like In Bloom, the human species and the natural world are cross-pollinated to celebrate the other’s chromatic breadth.

Sassen sweeps up the detritus and keeps it in her luggage in her journeys to far-flung places, and often puts it centre stage in her pictures, providing a curious contrast with her visual language which otherwise abstracts models to geometric entities. Her use of pipes and tubes, for example, has a colour lexicon of its own, but still raises uncomfortable connotations in driving home a point about globalisation. I found myself thinking this during the exhibition; several of her pictures could be improved by getting rid of the commonplace props, before realising that I’d fallen into Sassen’s trap. I was seduced by the expectation of a visually appealing aesthetic working in conjunction with kinetic models to the extent that I didn’t consider the causality at work. Movement leads to travel. Travel leads to globalisation. But globalisation leads to pollution, where the African continent is all too often the depositing ground for our waste. Sassen’s willingness to create alternative worlds is not pure escapism. This is drawn out by the artist’s self-described ‘love-hate’ relationship with fashion; the models on display are assembled for an ephemeral moment, and she knows it. Holding her models in parallel with waste and detritus depicts this symbolically, as the models are as disposable as the clothes they were and the detritus which surrounds them. That said, I don’t think that Sassen makes a closed book comment – she leaves it up to us whether the models are ‘degraded’ by their association with such materials, or whether their boldness in colour and form ensures they possess a mythic power.

One of my favourite pieces in the exhibition, and one which I am glad to be able to reproduce here, is the untitled piece from 2012, one of a handful in the exhibition taken from a single shoot on what appears to be a basketball-cum-tennis court.

The markings of the court ensure that it is the perfect interstice for the human body and geometry, as the contortions of the body are made plain through its interaction with the predictable markings of the sporting arena. The fluidity of the (female) form, so often constrained by fashion, is allowed to express itself as freely as the trees and plants which populate Sassen’s photos.

Rene Magritte – Son of Man, 1964

Sassen’s play with line and colour recalls her compatriot, the artist Piet Mondrian. As well as this, there is heritage from the Surrealists – on top of the aforementioned De Chirico, her (often frustrating) manipulations of props and perspective adopt a stylistic kinship with yet another artist from the Low Countries, Rene Magritte. Magritte’s paintings never give the viewer a safe moment; you have to always be on your guard to visual tricks, at other times you may confronted by an obstacle, the latter course being best embodied by the famous painting Son of Man. Enigma is the emotion associated with Magritte’s work above all others, but the symbolic legacy of the apple – namely the Fall of Man from the Garden of Eden – should not be abandoned to the winds of mystery. The title, Son of Man, directly invokes the penitence that descendants of Adam have had to undergo following Original Sin. Sassen posits a gynocentric creation, one arising out of a mother Earth or Gaia, using natural props as part of a constant rebirth, rather than a symbol of our Fall from it. This gives extra significance to Sassen’s obsession with Africa, as it is the continent from which humanity emerged. Africa is her Eden, not corrupted by any mythic event but, if anything, through the Western gaze which does not know how to contemplate it. Facilitated by this gynocentric creation, the natural world intertwines with Sassen’s women, blooming from their genitalia


Kudos then, to Sassen for curating two decades of substantial material, and to the Photographer’s Gallery for exhibiting it in such a creative manner, and at such a pivotal moment. With each passing day it seems as if a tipping point is being reached whereby, through the medium of social media, blogs, and viral articles, patriarchal tables are being turned and women are asserting their sexual autonomy, ending what may hopefully be seen in the future as an embarrassing period of human history where men felt obliged to tell women exactly how their bodies should operate. As well as this, Sassen’s work is necessary viewing in the midst of an Ebola crisis where the Western world seems enamoured with a primitive view of Africa, not helped by the crustiness of Band Aid 30. This is an exhibition with a finger on the pulse and an eye scanning the horizon – see it while you still can. It’s open until the 18th of January.

All photos reproduced with kind permission of the Photographers’ Gallery