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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.

The lovely glossy catalog handed out at the press preview for "Luc Tuymans: Nice." at the Menil was already obsolete. Before the long-planned show opened and after the catalog had gone to press, the Belgian artist Luc Tuymans decided to rearrange the whole show. Nice, indeed. Last-minute changes that cost lots of money and inconvenience people are the kind of things you can get away with when you are an international art star.

"Nice." is filled with portraits. (The aforementioned catalog is titled "Portraits," apparently to give the publication more straightforward appeal.) The artist selected 25 portrait-esque works from The Menil Collection's treasure trove to accompany his own portraits. There are 30 oil paintings by Tuymans, including portraits of a Ku Klux Klan leader, subjects in a medical textbook, Heinrich Himmler, store mannequins, Condoleezza Rice and various Belgian political figures. The Menil holdings chosen range from Roman mummy portraits from 150 CE to a 100-plus-year-old Congolese stone head to a mask collected by Captain James Cook from Vancouver Island in 1778. There's a Picasso from the '20s and a portrait of Enlightenment figure Denis Diderot as well as a Spanish colonial carving of the head of Christ.

Tuymans's title, "Nice." is supposed to be some quasi-sardonic commentary on the Menils' affluent idealism. The multicultural swirl of objects John and Dominique de Menil collected spans vast territories of geography and time. Their good works, diverse collection and the elegant museum that was designed to present it are a nice idea made possible by the couple's privilege.

Tuymans is quite successful himself these days and extremely privileged in his own right. I think he's tortured and self-aware enough to be bothered by his own success. Tuymans's work is highly critical of power and fueled by the artist's extreme concern with social and political injustices. King Albert II of Belgium awarded him the title of Commander, Order of Leopold — an honor named after King Leopold I, whose son Leopold II presided over all of the hand-chopping and slaughter of millions in the Congo. At the press preview, Tuymans felt the need to state that the Order was a civil honor and couldn't be refused.

I am a fan of Tuymans's paintings visually and conceptually. He's got this grayed-out and faded color palette that reeks of northern Europe's shitty, gloomy weather. The colors also have a grim, post-war-Europe feeling to them, evoking yellowed walls, concrete bunkers, faded photographs and guilt. Crimes and misdeeds, known, unknown and hidden, underlie much of Tuymans's work.

Tuymans was born in 1958, more than a decade after the war ended, but ghosts of WWII still loomed large in his home. At a press preview for his show at the Dallas Museum of Art in 2010, he talked about a family photo album triggering a long-running family fight. When Tuymans was five, his mother's brother was flipping through one of Tuymans's father's family albums. A photograph fell out. It showed one of his father's brothers in a Hitler Youth uniform performing the Nazi salute. Tuymans's mother's family had worked in the Dutch resistance and hid refugees. His father then revealed that two of his brothers had been in the Hitler Youth. Including the saluting man in the picture, the one little Luc was named for.

There are Nazis in Tuymans's current show. Secrets (1990) is a portrait of Albert Speer, fave Hitler architect and Nazi minister of war production. It's rendered in Tuymans's iconic painting style, using restrained tones and deft, decisive and deceptively simple brushstrokes. Speer was sentenced to 20 years in prison at the Nuremburg trials, where he accepted moral responsibility for what he had done. He went on to write his two best-selling autobiographies. He became known as "the Nazi who said sorry." Tuymans painted him in his Third Reich uniform but departed from the original photograph — in Tuymans's work, Speer's eyes are closed. He could be praying, sleeping or secretly reliving his Master Race glory days in the dark recesses of his mind.

Tuymans's painting Himmler (1997-98) has a film noir feeling to it. The painting is based on Heinrich Himmler's official portrait, but rendered darker and more indistinct, the facial features barely defined. Himmler becomes an icon of faceless, insidious, lurking evil.

In The Heritage VI (1996), Tuymans turns his brush to American evil, painting a portrait of wealthy Ku Klux Klansman Joseph Milteer, a character some conspiracy theorists believe was involved in the Kennedy assassination. Tuymans renders him in a brushy, grinning blandness. There's an added cultural angle to this in that Europeans don't automatically smile in photos. A toothily grinning KKK member is plenty creepy for us, but for Tuymans, it has to have an even more disturbing edge.

In Der Diagnostische Blick XI, the artist tries to humanize the abject. It is one of a series of paintings created from photographs of diseased people in a medical textbook designed to train physicians in making visual diagnoses. Tuymans has tightly cropped the patient's face, removing any context. All we have is the subject's expression; the artist shifted the man's gaze away from the viewer so he seems to be lost in thought. We don't know his affliction; we only see the face of another human being. In this way, Tuymans makes the medical subject an individual human being rather than an illustration of disease.

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.)

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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