Are the painting "series" so fashionable with contemporary artists now becoming a means less of exploring the boundaries of their art than just producing repetitive works that can be sold as distinct items?
The question is prompted by the showing of recent works by the Belgian artist, Luc Tuymans, at David Zwirner's new Mayfair gallery. I've no quarrel with the choice of artist to lead the American-based gallery's charge on the London market. If you want a face of Continental art after Gerhard Richter, you could do worse than pick Antwerp's best-known citizen. Building on the imagery and the textures of film and video stills, he has cast a painterly and ironic eye on everything from the Holocaust, Belgian colonialism, the European Union and, of course, art itself. At his best he paints works of shifting focus that unnerve the eye and genuinely challenge the viewer.
His Zwirner show, it has to be said, is not his best. "It's quite different from my other work, don't you agree?" he says lumbering in after too heavy a night at the opening. Well not exactly. The Allo! series around which the exhibition is built, was partly conceived in answer to an invitation to be an artist in residence at the exotic Room For London, a temporary construction on top of the Queen Elizabeth Hall made in the shape of a boat. The paintings were shown in Zagreb last May. While more erotic in their figures than most of Tuymans' works, they fit fairly neatly into his style of taking film image and subverting its meaning in paint.
Allo!, he explains, is based on the film of the novel The Moon and Sixpence by Somerset Maugham, "whom I know to be a favourite English author". Another joke one supposes from an artist who delights in the traditional role of the artist as provocateur of critics, patrons and the establishment. Which is odd (or ironic) in a way since the series is a critique of the idea of the artist as a lonely, unappreciated creator. The Maugham story is based on Gauguin's life and tells the tale of a stockbroker who, escaping to the South Seas, paints the room of his house with the exotic scenes of the life around only to have it all burnt down by his mistress after he dies. The film, on which Tuymans elaborates his series, is chiefly remembered for the way that it bursts into colour from black and white as the frescos go up in flames at the end.
You can see the attractions to an artist interested in commenting on a film that is itself a comment on art through the life of an artist which has itself become a myth of the role and persona of the romantic artist. The very title of the series, Allo!, is meant to be ironic, taken from the greeting of a parrot to patrons of an Antwerp bar close to the red-light district.
Layered meanings are Tuymans' stock-in-trade and he takes to this theme with ease. His palette assumes the texture of film halfway between black and white and colour. He peoples the space with bare-breasted natives, the stuff of 19th-century visions of the exotic. And in the last and sixth of the series, he displays the Oceanic primitive figures so admired by Picasso and the Modernists.
A critique of the avant-garde romance with the primitive and the exotic may well be Tuymans' main point. But if it is, it is a pretty thin one. Tuymans is by now so practised with this art of painting on photographic image that he slaps it on with fluid confidence. You look at the results, you recognise the skill but there is something slick and superficial about them.
What they lack is any sense of the artist. You get it on the handful of other non-related paintings on show. Peaches is a startling still life in which Tuymans imbues the fruit with a fluorescent glow by using a bluish white for the flesh and placing them against a dark background. The image is based on a Technicolor film which explains something of the brightness and fading quality of the colour. But it works without any outside reference.
The palette becomes positively brilliant in the best work in the show, titled Technicolor, a still-life of a vase of flowers in glowing blues and whites. The immediate sense is of a Technicolor print in a state of overexposure, the colours separating in the process. But then at the bottom of the vase, he has added a series of broad brushstrokes of a darker blue. In those strokes you feel an artist taking a risk (I'm not wholly convinced it comes off) and putting something of himself into the concept. The Allo! paintings seem vapid in comparison.
Maybe one shouldn't take it so seriously. It's just a parrot squawking, after all. Artists, like composers and writers, are allowed to coast a bit in their middle years. For a painter of Tuymans' talent, however, it reflects a much deeper problem of so-called "trophy" buying of art of our time and the effect on the celebrity artists who are ramped up to meet the demand. Galleries are coming to London because they see it as a natural centre for the new wealth arising in China, Central Asia, Russia and elsewhere. The new rich express their position by buying art. It has little to do with collecting. Instead it's a combination of crude economics – art is a relatively easy asset to cash and to move about the world – and a desire to display wealth conspicuously. They don't want to engage with an artist's work over time but to put one example on their walls or in their vaults – a Cy Twombly, a David Hockney, a Jeff Koons or whoever.
The interest of the galleries (and we're talking here about a million pounds or more per painting) is to play along with this by presenting every few years a new show of their artists' 'recent works'. It is in the interest of the painter, whatever his or her creativity at the time, to supply the market with a steady flow of new offerings. "Series" become the easy way for them to do it.
In the hands of the Twomblys and the Richters, they provide a way of pushing the boundaries of their art, testing their limits. In the hands of lesser artists they can be simply a means of productivity. I felt this with Damien Hirst's Spot Paintings and Gilbert & George's London Pictures, to name two recent examples. I feel it with Tuymans now.
Luc Tuymans: Allo!, David Zwirner, London W1 (0203 538 3165) to 17 November
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