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.