You say it’s gospel, but I know it’s only church

by cjdown

Luc Tuymans, The Valley, 2007

Whenever images threatened to gain undue influence within the church, theologians have sought to strip them of their power. As soon as images became more popular than the church’s institutions and began to act directly in God’s name, they became undesirable. It was never easy to control images with words because, like saints, they engaged deeper levels of experience and fulfilled desires other than the ones living church authorities were able to address. Therefore when theologians commented on some issue involving images, they invariably confirmed an already-existing practice. Rather than introducing images, theologians were all too ready to ban them. Only after the faithful had resisted all such efforts against their favorite images did theologians settle for issuing conditions and limitations governing access to them. Theologians were satisfied only when they could ‘explain’ the images. (Hans Belting, p.1,  Likeness and Presence, 1994)

I recently purchased a Luc Tuymans monograph called Is it Safe?. The book is published by Phaidon (2010) and includes essays by Pablo Sigg and Gerrit Vermeiren, an interview between Tuymans and his studio assistant, Tommy Simoens, as well as short introductory blurbs by Tuymans about each project.

Although I am generally pleased with the book, it highlighted an aspect of contemporary painting criticism that I find problematic. Specifically, Vermeiren’s essay, “Proper”, is an example of a mode of discourse that sees material practice as incidental to the production of artwork, and instead concentrates almost exclusively on semiotic and cultural decoding.

What is particularly irritating is that in limiting his analysis to the images in the paintings and rarely, if ever, referring to them in terms of painting as such, Vermeiren only examines half the evidence. He seems to regard the paintings as transparent to the images and proceeds with an unproblematic iconographic and semiotic analysis of the depictions, as if the subject matter is somehow equivalent to the meaning. The activity of Tuymans as a painter of these images is completely disregarded.

I understand that Tuymans has been identified with a kind of contemporary discourse in which the bluntness of his technique is seen as an expression of skepticism and not as an engagement with painterly facture. But surely, there must be a reason that they are paintings and not simply the re-photographed photographs that he uses as source material. After all, his considerable influence in contemporary art is primarily because of his approach to painting in dialogue with media images and history (see The Tuymans Effect, by Jordan Kantor). During Tuymans’s interview with Simoens, the discussion tends to emphasize the collection and interpretation of the source material, but there is at least some acknowledgment of the studio practice as one that involves tangible processes.

Painting barely figures in Vermeiren’s discourse at all. He writes as if Tuymans was engaged in an identical process of image critique as that represented by the essay. Even if this were the case, and I recognize this possibility, the paintings would present different kinds of critique than what is possible through written language for the very reason that they would be forced to do so from inside the limitations of painting. There is no 1:1 correspondence between paintings and our talk about them. Tuymans describes his inherent distrust of images, but Vermeiren seems to have the utmost faith, if not in images themselves, then at least in his capacity to unravel their meanings accurately and exhaustively.

My own inherent distrust extends to discourses more than images, and especially to discourses that assume the power to identify the “real” or “actual” meaning of images and practices while ignoring material specificity. This kind of distanced position is one that assumes an “objective” view, but which is heavily loaded with ideological baggage.

I like Tuymans’s paintings. I find his project quite interesting and some of the paintings that I have seen in person have been compelling. What I find less agreeable is the way his practice seems to lend itself very easily to the type of analysis exemplified by Vermeiren’s essay. Still less agreeable is that the methodology is not isolated to this essay about this artist, but is pervasive.

Framing painting strictly as cultural criticism is misguided because it turns good painting into half-baked sociology and lends bad painting the aura of cultural importance. It often ends up collapsing the distinctions between how a painting functions (ambiguously and in multiple directions, through material processes in addition to images) and the interpretive dispositions of the critic. Like the theologians described above by Belting, this type of critic is “only satisfied when they [can] ‘explain’ images”. I feel that the discourse is similarly motivated by a desire “for issuing conditions and limitations governing access” to the work. By comparison, paintings engage “deeper levels of experience” and “[fulfill] desires” beyond those of authorized discourse. The urge to contain painting within a framework that is theoretically fashionable is one of the vices of the gate-keeping caste.

In contrast to the Tuyman’s book, I have just finished Manet’s Silence and the Poetics of Bouquets, by James H. Rubin. At the end of this cogent study, he  offers some words pertinent to the question of the critic/curator/historian’s interpretive position:

Adopting the historical form of discourse [art history] operates through a grammar and a syntax that predetermine the nature of the meanings it discovers as conforming more or less to their internal logic … [J]ust as we cannot construct the artwork as an entity from which the artist is innocently external or which has a neutral effect on the viewer, neither is the art historian’s representation an impartial one. Posing as an objective science, art history, and its position of omniscience, has served ultimately to empower its own practitioners and their ideology (pp. 223-24).

Edouard Manet, Portrait of Stéphane Mallarmé, 1876