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Sinister art? Ground-breaking artist's arresting Nice show at The Menil is anything but

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The Menil Collection Luc Tuymans September 2013 Secretary of State
Luc Tuymans, The Secretary of State, 2005, oil on canvas, 45.5 by 61.5 by 4 centimeters, The Museum of Modern Art, New York Photo courtesy of © 2013 Studio Luc Tuymans
The Menil Collection Luc Tuymans September 2013 Secrets
Luc Tuymans, Secrets, 1990, oil on canvas, 52 by 37 centimeters, private collection, courtesy of Zeno X Gallery Photo courtesy of © 2013 Studio Luc Tuymans
The Menil Collection Luc Tuymans September 2013 KätheGrüsse03
Luc Tuymans, Käthe Grüsse, 1990, oil on canvas, three parts, 14 3/8 by 13 7/8 inches, 14 1/4 by 14 1/8 inches, 14 3/4 by 13 7/8 inches, private collection Photo courtesy of a private collection
The Menil Collection Luc Tuymans September 2013 KätheGrüsse02
Luc Tuymans, Käthe Grüsse, 1990, oil on canvas, three parts, 14 3/8 by 13 7/8 inches, 14 1/4 by 14 1/8 inches, 14 3/4 by 13 7/8 inches, private collection Photo courtesy of a private collection
The Menil Collection Luc Tuymans September 2013 KätheGrüsse01
Luc Tuymans, Käthe Grüsse, 1990, oil on canvas, three parts, 14 3/8 by 13 7/8 inches, 14 1/4 by 14 1/8 inches, 14 3/4 by 13 7/8 inches, private collection Photo courtesy of a private collection
The Menil Collection Luc Tuymans September 2013 Heritage VI
Luc Tuymans, The Heritage VI, 1996, oil on canvas, 20 7/8 by 17 1/8 inches, private collection, New York, courtesy of David Zwirner, New York/London Photo courtesy of David Zwirner, New York/London
The Menil Collection Luc Tuymans September 2013 Fingers
Luc Tuymans, Fingers, 1995, oil on canvas, 14 3/4 by 13 by 3/4 inches, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes, France Photo courtesy of Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes, France
The Menil Collection Luc Tuymans September 2013 Evidence
Luc Tuymans, Evidence, 2005, oil on canvas, 108 by 87.5 centimeters, Stefan T. Edlis Collection, courtesy of David Zwirner, New York/London Photo courtesy of © 2013 Studio Luc Tuymans
The Menil Collection Luc Tuymans September 2013 Donation
Luc Tuymans, Donation, 2008, private collection, Courtesy of Hauser & Wirth Photo by Barbora Gerny, Zürich/© 2013 Studio Luc Tuymans
The Menil Collection Luc Tuymans September 2013 DerDiagnostischeBlickIV
Luc Tuymans, Der Diagnostische Blick IV (The Diagnostic View IV), 1992, oil on canvas, 22 3/8 by 15 inches, private collection, on long-term loan to the De Pont Museum of Contemporary Art, Tilburg, The Netherlands Photo courtesy of De Pont Museum of Contemporary Art, Tilburg, The Netherlands
The Menil Collection Luc Tuymans September 2013 Christ
Luc Tuymans, Christ, 1998, oil on canvas, 48 by 22 3/4 inches, Rubell Family Collection, Miami Photo courtesy of Rubell Family Collection, Miami
The Menil Collection Luc Tuymans September 2013 Secretary of State
The Menil Collection Luc Tuymans September 2013 Secrets
The Menil Collection Luc Tuymans September 2013 KätheGrüsse03
The Menil Collection Luc Tuymans September 2013 KätheGrüsse02
The Menil Collection Luc Tuymans September 2013 KätheGrüsse01
The Menil Collection Luc Tuymans September 2013 Heritage VI
The Menil Collection Luc Tuymans September 2013 Fingers
The Menil Collection Luc Tuymans September 2013 Evidence
The Menil Collection Luc Tuymans September 2013 Donation
The Menil Collection Luc Tuymans September 2013 DerDiagnostischeBlickIV
The Menil Collection Luc Tuymans September 2013 Christ

Luc Tuymans' portraits brim with sinister elements in his new Menil Collection show Nice, which opens Thursday with a reception from 7 to 9 p.m.

The acclaimed Belgian artist, who organized the exhibit alongside Menil director Josef Helfenstein and curator Toby Kamps, combines nearly 30 of his historically-charged paintings with work drawn from the museum's permanent holdings.

Images of Nazi leaders and right-wing politicos mingle with ancient Congolese sculptures and Roman sarcophagi. A self-portrait of the painter on his cellphone hangs beside a pseudo-death mask of André Breton, the legendary leader of French surrealism. Even the Menil's infamous Picasso portrait Woman in a Red Armchair, now fully restored after the infamous 2012 spray-paint attack, makes a special appearance. 

"For me, a good painting should never make you thi nk of music or sound. It should be totally inert and silent."

During a Tuesday preview tour of the show, Tuymans explained the matter in which he tries to strip any traces psychology from his portrait subjects — an effort which — whether the artist intends it or not — makes the pieces all the more psychologically compelling.

Washed-out portraits of medical patients are rendered with bright-colored eyes peering off in odd directions. Other figures are painted from distorted images from films and photo slides, reducing people to soft and fuzzy shapes.

The artist refers to many of his portrait subjects as "shells" and "masks," hollow versions of notable figures from history and contemporary politics.

"For me, a good painting should never make you think of music or sound," he ruminated. "It should be totally inert and silent to keep it from being moralistic."

A small painting of Jeremy Bentham — or, more specifically, a wax effigy of the British philosopher on display at University College London — greets visitors as they enter the exhibition from the museum's central hall (another entry is carved into the Menil's surrealist rooms). A noted abolitionist with a penchant for prison design, Bentham proves a fittingly conflicted subject for Tuymans.

Included in the show is one of the artist's most well-known pieces, a 2005 portrait of Condoleezza Rice made as the former White House advisor became U.S. Secretary of State during the Iraq War. Tuymans, a staunch opponent to the war, said he forced himself to maintain a degree of distance from the theme.

"The portrait of Condoleeza Rice is taken from her website. It's not a moral statement, just this ambiguity that you see."

Nice. Luc Tuyman will be on view at the Menil Collection through Jan. 5, 2014. Admission to the museum and exhibition is free.

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