Installation view of LUC TUYMANS’s “Good Luck” at David Zwirner, Hong Kong, 2020. All images copyright the artist; courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, Hong Kong / New York / London. 

Paradox and Uncertainty in Luc Tuymans’s “Good Luck”

David Zwirner
Belgium The Netherlands China

To walk into Belgian visual artist Luc Tuymans’s solo exhibition at David Zwirner Hong Kong was to be immersed in a sea of dissipating memories, faded images blurring past and present. Rendered in Tuymans’s signature washed-out oils in muted palettes, the new figurative paintings on view at “Good Luck” conjure the uncertainties and conflicts that loom large in our world across temporal, geographic, and cultural divides.

At the gallery entrance, the meticulously pressed cowboy hat and costume of Hollywood actor Tom Mix, famed for his gunslinger roles in early 20th-century Westerns, appears in the gray-hued Outfit (2019). Portrayed as if on a headless mannequin in a museum, the costume, symbolizing the archetypal American hero in romanticized narratives of the Wild West, is likened to a historic prop. On the adjacent wall, the warm aura surrounding the light source in Projector (2019) resonates with the sense of fantasy conjured in Outfit, harkening to the construction of stardom and popular culture during the heyday of studio Hollywood, a key vehicle for the United States’ image-making at home and abroad. 

Installation view of LUC TUYMANS’s (left to right) Outfit, 2019, oil on canvas, 202.4 × 100.9 cm; and Projector, 2019, oil on canvas, 157.1 × 101.2 cm, at “Good Luck,” David Zwirner, Hong Kong, 2020.

The large-scale Tree (2019) held an imposing presence in the next room, its elongated trunk stemming from the gallery floor and extending the vertical length of the wall. With the lower branches ending abruptly at the edge of the canvas, the tree seems to grow into the elevated ceiling, with the overhead spotlights mirroring the rays of light illustrated in the painting. This singular entity stands in contrast to the nearby Celebration (2019), an abstraction of scattered spots against a bright background that recalls a sky full of floating balloons. Placed in dialogue, these works evoke the tension between individual and collective, between the need for uniqueness versus belonging. The power of groupthink and anonymity exerts even greater influence today in an era of rising populism and radicalization, fueled by the uneven rewards of globalization.

In the upper-floor gallery, trade and exchange were explored in a more lighthearted manner in Delft I, II, and III (all 2019), a trio of animated blue-and-white caricatures of men in 17th-century European dress appropriated from Delft tiles. The history of delftware is deeply tied to Dutch imperialism and the European demand for Chinese porcelains, which was in turn intertwined with a centuries-old global network of trade in precious metals, spices, and other commodities. Popular during the 17th century, the Dutch-manufactured tin-glazed earthenware was a substitute for Chinese porcelain and an emblem of the exchange of goods and ideas in the “Golden Age” of colonial exploits. Displaying the work in Hong Kong additionally leverages the city’s status as a center of global trade, calling to mind the beautiful and ugly sides of its historical development as a crucial colonial port, as well as its present entanglements in the ongoing Sino-US trade war.

Installation view of LUC TUYMANS’s (left to right) Delft III, and III, all 2019, oil on canvas, 135.1 × 113.3 cm, 135.3 × 133.6 cm, and 133.6 × 123.6 cm, at “Good Luck,” David Zwirner, Hong Kong, 2020.

The theme of rapid urbanization for economic advancement is made explicit in the nearby Shenzhen (2019), depicting an aerial view of the city superimposed with the symbols for play and fast-forward that automatically appear when one pauses a YouTube video. Once a rural village, Shenzhen has transformed into a manufacturing and technological megalopolis within decades after becoming China’s first special economic zone in 1980, which permitted market-oriented policies designed to attract domestic and foreign businesses. Deemed a success story, Shenzhen, like other industrial cities, has its share of social and environmental problems due to its bid for speedy development, from widening wealth gaps and rising housing prices to pollution and water shortage. In depicting Shenzhen’s progression “on pause,” Tuymans contemplates not only the city’s past and future, but also the unintended consequences of unchecked modernization at large.

Perhaps the artist’s conviction as to where the world is headed is best reflected in his emotive portrait of a middle-aged man, Anonymous I (2018). Based on images generated by forensic facial approximation, the subject, who may not exist in reality, appears distant and restrained, with furrowed brows and tightly pursed lips. Despite his resolute, forward-looking gaze, he is neither here nor there, encapsulating the perplexity and apprehension that awaits.

LUC TUYMANSShenzhen, 2019, oil on canvas, 213.2 × 156.4 cm.

Installation view of LUC TUYMANS’s (left to right) Cell, 2019, oil on canvas, 171.6 × 192.8 cm; and Anonymous I, 2018, oil on canvas, 133.2 × 99.4 cm, at “Good Luck,” David Zwirner, Hong Kong, 2020.

Lauren Long is ArtAsiaPacific’s news and web editor.

Luc Tuymans’s Good Luck is on view at David Zwirner, Hong Kong, until December 19, 2020.

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