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"Luc Tuymans: Nice" Is Just That and Nothing More

Artist Luc Tuymans at the Menil is a better painter than curator of work done by himself and others.

One of the strongest works in the show is Frank (2003), a portrait of the artist's dealer looking stricken at the wheel of a car. Painted from a low angle, the car's hood occupies four-fifths of the large canvas with the windshield and the man's face a strip along the top. The work launches a hundred different narratives.

Unfortunately for "Nice.," Tuymans also included some of what looks to be the worst work he has produced. His paintings from a hokey vintage brochure for the Oberammergau Passion Play are just awful. (The citizens of Oberammergau Germany have put on a Passion play every ten years since the town survived the bubonic plague in the 17th century.) Tuymans doesn't do kitsch well. He's trying so hard to convey the photograph of an Oberammergau man dressed as Christ in a bad fake beard and crappy tunic that he forgets about it as a painting in itself.

The Menil has a history of artists curating works from its collection, but Tuymans's foray isn't very successful. The Menil has great stuff, but Tuymans just never pulls it all together as effectively or dramatically as Robert Gober did in his Menil show "The Meat Wagon," or makes the kind of searing artistic political points David McGee made in "Deep Wells and Reflecting Pools" and Otabenga Jones and associates made in "Lessons from Below." The Spanish colonial head of Christ relates to the Oberammergau paintings. The self-possessed stone head from the Congo superficially ties into Tuymans's concerns with Belgian colonial atrocities in the Congo and Tuymans's painting of a stereotypically "African" figure in a loincloth the artist photographed in an Antwerp bar. At press previews, Tuymans leads viewers through his work and talks about the global sources, politics, history and scandals behind them. He's well-informed, interesting and highly critical. (Although when talking about his portrait of Condoleezza Rice at the press previews in Houston and Dallas, he dramatically pointed out to the American journalists Rice's Republicanism and the fact that the Republicans freed the slaves! Luc, buddy, that's one of the few things about our history that every freaking American knows.)

In The Heritage VI (1996), Tuymans paints a portrait of Ku Klux Klansman Joseph Milteer.
Courtesy of David Zwirner
In The Heritage VI (1996), Tuymans paints a portrait of Ku Klux Klansman Joseph Milteer.

Location Info

Map

The Menil Collection

1515 Sul Ross
Houston, TX 77006

Category: Art Galleries

Region: Montrose

Details

"Luc Tuymans: Nice"

Through January 5 at The Menil Collection, 1533 Sul Ross, 713-525-9400

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This show, however, just doesn't meet the artistic standards of his work. As a curator, Tuymans isn't able to pull together in this exhibit the qualities that make his work successful. It just feels like the loot of wealthy collectors. Tuymans picked some interesting objects — I have always been struck by those Roman mummy portraits, and they are painted with the same direct, efficient strokes that Tuymans uses in his own work. A life cast of Surrealist André Breton's head makes you wish it could talk. But ultimately, the vast collection of portraits by Tuymans and others in various times, cultures and places comes across as a fairly simplistic and not very incisive "Family of Man"-style exhibition.

The show's title is a jab at the American tendency to call everything "nice." At the end of the press preview, there was that awkward and lengthy pause that happens when the artist is finished talking and the press are finished asking questions. Everyone was standing around staring at Tuymans. He looked kind of cornered. Grasping for something to fill the silence, I found myself saying, "It's a nice show."

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