At the turn of the century, Tuymans tackled Beligium’s dirty past with significantly larger canvases and a slightly more colorful palette. “Mwana Kitoko: Beautiful White Man,” a series of ten paintings that debuted at the 2001 Venice Biennale, grapples with Belgian colonial rule in the Congo and the 1961 assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically elected prime minister after the country gained independence. The suite lays bare the machinery of colonial power and its long lasting effects, and as such can be be viewed as a primer on post-colonialism. The Mwana Kitoko of the exhibition’s title, the Belgian king, is the subject of a full-length portrait. The white king in his glaringly white military uniform steps off the royal jet and onto his colonial territory. The image is bleached like a Polaroid left in the sun, or as if shimmering heat or glaring sun were disintergating the image from the viewer’s vantage point. Mwana’s face is obscured; his eyes are covered with sunglasses. Perhaps this man has no identity, other than as a symbol of Belgian power. By contrast, Lumumba, who will replace him, is depicted in a more intimate head-and-shoulder portrait almost looking straight at the viewer.
Tuymans also examines the Bush administration and 9/11 in “Proper,” 2005, a series of six paintings. In “Secretary of State,” a close-cropped image of Condoleeza Rice’s infamous scowl confronts the viewer, her head blown up to such size that she becomes like a colossal face on Mount Rushmore, part of the landscape; the canvas’ horizontal orientation reinforces the sensation. But she’s also sticking her face in yours, obscuring everything behind her. She’s the Presidential guard dog. You must listen to her; you don’t need to see for yourself. Once again, Tuymans illustrates that power is maintained through the framing, obfuscation and deliberate omission of information, be it visual or textual. Perhaps he is postmodernism’s history painter. His work is about the unreliability of perception and memory; it underscores the limitations of representation itself (painting included); context is everything, meaning is always incomplete and subjective; and he exposes the mechanisms that produce myth and even misinformation.
Tuymans’ biography, well-tended by the artist himself, reenacts the crisis of faith of many artists who must daily battle the mass media’s onslaught of images and the challenges of the creative process. Tuymans copped to his medium’s inadequacies, found a way to get past what could have been the paralyzing epiphany that he’ll likely never create anything original, and found a way for it to be both relevant and critique its competitor.
Though Tuymans claims to produce his work in one day, it is what precedes the day of painting that is so time-consuming. Tuymans looks and thinks about a subject for who knows how long, and it is this process, distilled in his work, that makes it so compelling. For anyone interested in contemporary painting, Tuymans deserves an equally long look. You will be captivated, but not by facile beauty.