Monday, November 19th, 2012

Each To His Own Tahiti: Peter Doig and Luc Tuymans in London

Report from…London

Peter Doig at Michael Werner London, 22 Upper Brook Street, September 27 to December 22, 2012
Luc Tuymans at David Zwirner Gallery, 24 Grafton Street, October 5 to November 17, 2012

Installation shot of works by Peter Doig at Michael Werner Gallery, Mayfair, London
Installation shot of works by Peter Doig at Michael Werner Gallery, Mayfair, London

A confluence of events made London the place to see art this October, with the opening of three New York galleries in Mayfair at the same time as Frieze Art Fair. News headlines like “The Americans are coming” and “US art dealers invade London with massive new galleries” sounded almost nervous.

Why it makes market sense for international art dealers to come to London now, and why elegant properties in prime areas are suddenly affordable is easily explained by things like the world economy and where new rich buyers want to live. More interesting is the ascendancy of painting at all these venues.

David Zwirner opened in a five–storey Georgian townhouse with a show of paintings by Luc Tuymans; Michael Werner opened around the corner from the Dorchester with paintings by Peter Doig; and Pace has taken over what was once the Museum of Mankind – behind the Royal Academy – and opened with the late black and grey paintings of Mark Rothko juxtaposed with stark, dark photographs of water by Hiroshi Sugimoto. The juxtaposition took the edge off both artists, and the general mood was altogether too black.

Peter Doig’s exhibition, on the other hand, was filled with strong, perhaps Caribbean, color (the Scottish-Canadian artist left London for Trinidad ten years ago.) As a longtime admirer of Doig, I have to report that the show was a disappointment. Whether the huge price tags on his work have become an inhibition – White Canoe, a fabulous painting from 1990, was sold at auction in 2007 for an extraordinary $11.3 million – or whether Trinidad is not stimulating him, something is missing.

Peter Doig, Figure by a Pool, 2008-2012. Oil and distemper on linen, 98-1/2 x 78-3/4 inches. Courtesy Michael Werner Gallery, New York and London
Peter Doig, Figure by a Pool, 2008-2012. Oil and distemper on linen, 98-1/2 x 78-3/4 inches. Courtesy Michael Werner Gallery, New York and London

In place of the old vigor, with the visceral use of paint and hint of menace in the subject matter, the work now seems passionless and thin. Poolscapes, colonial cricket pitches, a naked, long-haired figure riding through the sea on horseback, a boat floating past a cave – these may be a real part of Doig’s daily life on the island, but within his paintings these are still in the realm of romantic ideas that don’t seem visually or culturally digested. If– as they seem to be – the figures are self-portraits, there is something too comfortable and too easy about them. In the past, Doig’s palette has been awkward in a good way, as if referring to artificially created color, but the liberal areas of bright orange and yellow in the new paintings just feel fake and noisy.

A delightful, quirky exception is the small canvas, Lion in the Sand (2012). It could be a tricolor flag with aquamarine sea above the humanized, prancing lion and burning red below. Although I was later told that the drawings in the upstairs gallery were not supposed to be part of the exhibition, I was happy to find small, untamed works on paper, some of them sketches for the canvases below, which suggest the old vitality is not entirely lost. (The horseback rider in the sea, however, should have been scotched in both forms.)

There is an odd interaction between the exhibitions of Doig and Luc Tuymans, whose new series of paintings, Allo!, casts an ironic eye on colonialism and the much romanticized story of the painter who went to live on an island. Doig, who has been accused of doing a Gauguin, says he remains an outsider on the island and that his work would be much more romantic and myth-based if he were Trinidadian.

Luc Tuymans arrived late, bleary-eyed and grumpy for his press preview at Zwirmer, and used the occasion to slag off the “fucking Brits” for being “half-hearted Europeans”. He seemed reluctant to talk about his art that day: the quotes that follow were taken from his interview at Frieze Art Fair a week later. But the Belgian painter is viewed with such respect that he can get away with crass behaviour – and he certainly knows how to silence an audience. When questions were invited at the end of the Frieze talk he interjected: “Only intelligent questions please.”

The paintings in the first gallery are a preface to Allo! (a quote from the parrot which inhabited Tuymans’ local bar): washed out and distanced from the viewer as if seen through a fuzz of talcum powder or on a dim TV screen. Quiet as they are, they grab the attention. Peaches (all works 2012), for instance – a pyramid of bleached, sickly green spheres, which look a bit like cabbages and a bit like scoops of ice cream caught under a fluorescent light. Or Technicolor – a bouquet of flowers seen from above, aglow in a murky haze.

The Allo! paintings are based on stills from a 1942 Hollywood film – which is based on Somerset Maugham’s book, “The Moon and Sixpence.” The story of a middle-aged English stockbroker who abandons his wife and children to become an artist in Tahiti, it is in turn a romanticized version of Gauguin’s life. In the closing sequence, the film moves into Technicolor, showing fake, kitschy “Gauguins”, and this becomes the source of Tuymans’ paintings.

With thin washes of scarlet and blue, hints of yellow, smeared edges and areas of canvas left bare as if overexposed, there are a lot more luminous grays in these paintings than color. They are more about the crude technology of early Technicolor, broken down further by being screened on television, photographed and enlarged. The result is paintings that are complex and subtle.

Luc Tuymans, Peaches, 2012.  Oil on canvas, 68-1/2 x 46-1/2 inches. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London
Luc Tuymans, Peaches, 2012. Oil on canvas, 68-1/2 x 46-1/2 inches. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London

Tuymans photographed the film stills from the screen with his iPhone, catching reflected images of himself at the same time – which add a lurking element of autobiography. A lot, indeed, lurks in these strange, sinister paintings. The nostalgic beauty of floating female figures and Tahitian fabrics; the lonely prowling figure of a man in a hat who watches, cut off from the action; suggestions of a violent interface between primitive and colonial, and the violence in each.

Transparent as these works are – the pencil drawing is left visible and there is no feeling of change or cover up, just loose, light, searching brushstrokes – Tuymans says that for him the first few hours of a painting are an agonizing struggle. He also says that painting is all about time and precision, that a good painting is never finished and that it remains a one-to-one experience. He is a hard act to follow.

Peter Doig, Lion in Sand, 2012. Oil and gesso on linen, 15 x 18-1/4 inches.  Courtesy Michael Werner Gallery, New York and London
click to enlarge
Luc Tuymans, Allo! IV, 2012. Oil on canvas, 50-3/8 x 71-5/8 inches. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London
click to enlarge