We Like — Spanish Vegetation

Seldom do opportunities arise to perfectly combine serious culture and soaking up the sun. But, with the opening of Retratos y vegetación (Portraits and Vegetation), an exhibition of paintings by the internationally renowned Belgian artist Luc Tuymans, CAC Málaga offers exactly that possibility. Malaga may well have a well-earned reputation as a resort town that democratically caters to both Spanish Old Money making a break for Spain’s southern Mediterranean coast and swathes of international tourists who visit almost all year round. However, Malaga was a sophisticated culture-loving port city long before the tourists arrived. It’s Roman and Moorish architectural heritages are second to none, readily testifying how the city’s wealth generated as an ancient trading port and strategic point on the Mediterranean was already invested in culture in ancient times. And, as Malaga will never let us forget, it was also the birthplace of Pablo Picasso.

Luc Tuymans ‘Portrait’ 2000. Oil on Canvas. Courtesy of the artist and Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp

Luc Tuymans ‘Portrait’ 2000. Oil on Canvas. Courtesy of the artist and Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp

The Contemporary Art Centre of Málaga continues the city’s long tradition of ensuring that the possibilities for pleasure and leisure or holiday revelry are not at the expense of cultural edification. Its rich and varied programme offers both local residents and visitors the opportunity to take in exhibitions of some of the best contemporary art in the world. And the new Luc Tuymans show is precisely an example of this.

Curated by Covadonga Hernández, the exhibition takes up the central space in the former Franco-era industrial building that now houses one of Spain’s most highly regarded contemporary art centres. As the title suggests, this is a show that foregrounds works by Tuymans that relate directly to still life and portraiture traditions. Naturally, however, neither the works that bear a formal relationship to the tradition of painting subjects from the world of nature or a formal sitter, nor the totality of the show are limited to this single strand.

Comprising a selection of 16 works primarily spanning approximately two decades, it offers both an overview of key developments in the work of the lauded painter as well as an experiential sense of the juxtapositions of seemingly unrelated imagery, often dense and opaque, that have marked his work. In a sense, the curatorial approach echoes Tuymans’ own penchant for using the exhibition format itself to create specific artistic discourses.

Thus, in Retratos y vegetación we see rather quiet and reflective works that draw on the still life tradition in juxtaposition to works that draw on traditions of portraiture such as the signature works derived from archival imagery that immediately engage us with some of the twentieth century’s darkest historical moments or simple poetic melancholy. Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of this particular exhibition is how it particularly distils the aura of Impressionism in Tuymans’ work. Although this is something that has been particularly strong in recent bodies of work, it’s not one of the influences that one might primarily associate with Luc Tuymans, perhaps because of the frequently chilling subject matter of some of his best-known work. But, not only does this exhibition show us a fine example of this recent work that owes a lot to the traditions of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, it underscores just how much Tuymans’ use of colour as a kind of depiction of light has always carried this influence within it, especially when shown in juxtaposition to earlier works.

But, as always, nothing is exactly what it seems at first glance. For example, a particularly beautiful painting depicts flowers in a palette of blues, blacks and dirty pinks painted in a loose, fractured style; lapsing into abstraction. It is at once a very beautiful painting of flowers in a seemingly traditional mode that is immediately evocative of the developments of late Impressionism. Only the title gives away that it is, in fact, a representation of artificial flowers or, more specifically, the Disney attraction that presents a tableaux of singing flowers to the theme park visitor, one of the paintings from a fairly recent body of work that saw Tuymans’ explore his ongoing fascination with Walt Disney with signature surgical precision. The seemingly traditional image of seemingly traditional beauty, in fact, turns out to be something else altogether, a far more conceptual gaze turned on Disney’s artifice and its place in our contemporary visual culture.

Here, as in much of Luc Tuymans’ output, the lines between poetics and intellectual interrogation twist around each other like strands of DNA meaning that, no matter what angle we view it from, it is difficult not to see these aspects intersecting at some point in their two dimensional manifestation, even though we’re likely to need some time to orientate ourselves on first confrontation with the image in a work.

For those who want to combine this treat with some sun and sea, the exhibition at Malaga CAC continues until 4 September.

Luc Tuymans ‘Singing Flowers’ 2008. Oil on canvas, Courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner, New York.

Luc Tuymans ‘Singing Flowers’ 2008. Oil on canvas, Courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner, New York.