"Nice. Luc Tuymans" Uses Dark Colors to Create Dark Moods About Famous Figures

With "Nice. Luc Tuymans," the painter of the same name uses his enduring style - realism - in portraiture. The exhibition, curated by Menil director Josef Helfenstein and Menil curator of modern and contemporary art, Toby Kamps, sets 30 of his portrait paintings among 25 pieces from the Menil Collection.

Tuymans has been painting portraits of himself, family members and public figures since the start of his career in the 1970s, but these are no ordinary faces. With the famous figures particularly, Tuymans uses his oils to reexamine feelings about them.He muddies greens into colors of puce and washes out blacks into gray-scale hues, the combination of which leaves an ambivalent or even negative feeling about the person being portrayed.

"The Heritage VI" (1996) takes a photograph of late white supremacist Joseph Milteer, whose name was tossed around in connection the JFK assassination and turns it into a black-and-gray portrait adding his signature ghoulish green tint to the oil-on-canvas remake of the original black-and-white photograph. He does the same with a picture of Condoleeza Rice ("The Secretary of State" 2005), his blurry oils turning her signature scowl into a mush-mouthed, mismatched miasma of drab colors. Brown oil pools into the corners of her squinted eyes, and her notable red lips are painted into a burnished burgundy shade. Milteer's portrait provides a wide politician's smile in comparison to Rice's, whose lips are slightly parted, barely letting through her other notable feature, her gap. One figure is pleased with himself, the other, not so much.

The color palette isn't the only thing determining mood. Tuymans paints his oil-on-canvas portraits with quick, staccato brushstrokes, which can produce feelings of anxiety. "Head" (2012), a frame-filling portrait of an infant with his eyes closed, is cute as can be -- at first. Those same rainy colors are there, however, a gash on the baby's forehead suggests that the baby may not be in the throes of a thumb-sucking slumber, but in fact, may be dead. "Iphone" (2008) is a self-portrait of Tuymans. The portrait is drawn to make Tuymans a smudge, made so by the flash of the camera. Thus, he is nothing more than an outline of a man in a hat. Like a person you pass on the city street, his facial features are not visible. With his ease at making the features of the other characters so visible, and his not, is he removing critique of himself from the viewer?

"Nice.Luc Tuymans" will be on view through January 5, 2014. Visit The Menil Collection's website for more information.

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