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.