Ethereally rendered and exhibiting a scrupulously wrought luminosity, Tunnel emblematises the precise execution of Tuymans' most celebrated works even as it pushes his central thematic subject - the empty room - to its logical extreme. An eventuality anticipated by earlier works such as Gas Chamber (1986) or Slide #3 (2002), Tunnel's stunning experimentation in the imagery of sublime vacancy gives credence to Harvard Professor Joseph Leo Koerner's claim that Tuymans has "saved painting in our time" (Joseph Leo Koerner, Monstrance in: Exhibition Catalogue, San Francisco, Museum of Modern Art; Columbus, Wexner Center for the Arts, Luc Tuymans, 2009, p. 36).
Tunnel undoubtedly invites filmic associations, recalling Tuyman's affinity for the moving image over and above the photographic. He has said: "for an artist like Gerhard Richter, the fight of true painting against photography was very important; for me, it's much more interesting to think of films, because on a psychological level, films are more decisive" (the artist in: Juan Vicente Aliaga and Luc Tuymans, Interview in: Ulrich Look et al., Luc Tuymans, London 2004, p. 12). The compositional devices associated with cinema, including cropping, close-ups and framing are thus apparent throughout his oeuvre, alongside a characteristically minimalist execution of mise-en-scène. Tunnel manifests in the extreme cinematic conventions of framing, while illustrating Tuymans' statement that "most of the elements I paint exist in a sort of vacuum. Most of my pictures depict rooms; everything has been taken out of the image" (Ibid., p. 13). Distinguishing his efforts from the abstract expressionist project, however, the room - or tunnel - remains an empty physical space, an undecorated set, executed in wet, ghostly pale strokes. Whereas modernist critic Clement Greenberg delighted in the ability of abstract painting to relinquish all connection to "real life", Tuymans purposefully retains a haunting sense of realism, as if his scenes are painted from a failing memory. Their deliberate, highly rationalised execution convinces an observer of their narrative content, even as it omits necessary details. Intent upon finding this edge, Tuymans has explained: "a good painting to me denounces its own ties so that you are unable to remember it correctly. Thus it generates other images" (Ibid., p. 12).
In navigating between the real and the abstract, Tuymans - like his contemporary Gerhard Richter - has found it necessary to confront the notion of the sublime, perhaps because it embodies a transcendent state obviating these two poles. Tuymans flirts with the sublime, acknowledging his debt to Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich, "who was the first artist who turned the landscape into a mental image. He applied the first restrictions, in terms of the imagery, and then kept reducing... The work has to be painted in a very pragmatic way. Everything tends to go towards a sort of extreme image" (Ibid., p. 13). Tunnel magnificently realises this process, paring down spatial information unto a single pristine rectangle that recedes indefinitely into white light. Its composition recalls Jean-François Lyotard's view that our contemporary sublime - no longer defined wholly by religious experience - is best emblematised by the void, experienced via the mesmeric absorption of the senses in the depth of a colour or the timbre of a musical note. As the eye extends down Tuymans' tunnel, it anticipates the promise of an ultimate state. Similarly, Gerhard Richter's cloud paintings explore atmospheric sunlight while evading its source. Meticulously shaded cloud formations appear convincingly backlit, encouraging the viewer to believe that any moment their opaque forms will part to reveal something brighter.
The narrative pull of Tuymans' work is grounded partly by highly rational, controlled technique, which suggests an inherent logic to the picture constituted. With its softly architectural tonal variation, Tunnel bespeaks Tuymans' formative encounters with the painting of El Greco. "What really shook me up was that the light was always cool; the warmth is removed from the imagery, which makes it more powerful. The first time I saw El Greco's paintings in a book, I disliked his mannerism, but when I saw it in the flesh, I realised that what I had taken for mannerism was actually very rigorous rationality. There was a structure; the whole thing was carefully constructed... El Greco showed me that painting should appear, confront the viewer and then disappear, like a kind of retraction. In El Greco there was a sort of deconstruction going on within the imagery; he left out the middle part of the painting. I couldn't remember the whole image" (Ibid., p. 12-3). Tunnel similarly presents an immersive space that consumes the viewer's gaze, just as it infinitely recedes into sublime distance; an imagined cinema projecting images of beauty upon an endlessly deferred screen.
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