“Nice” is Not Nice: Luc Tuymans’ exhibit at Menil

Luc Tuymans’ exhibit at Menil Collection questions reality

Luc Tuymans SECRETS

The opening line of this review should contain some type of disclaimer such as, “What you are about to see is not for the faint of heart, nor the faint of mind, or for anyone who has recently been plagued with severe depression and anxiety.”

The exhibition is called “Nice,” but that’s exactly the conundrum — it’s not.

Even the philanthropic goodwill of the Menil Collection founders is questioned. Don’t get me wrong, I commend and recommend this show for exactly that reason.

If you are in search of a show that gets a little gritty under the surface and reveals immediately a visual language echoing profound darkness and pessimism, you have come to the right museum and embarked on a stimulating journey. Besides, winter is nearing its official start soon, so what more appropriate time than now to bask in the bleak, gray toned world of this complex artist?

“Nice,” currently on view at the Menil Collection in Houston through Jan. 5, is a show of 30 oil on canvas portrait paintings by the contemporary Belgian artist Luc Tuymans, born in 1958.

If you Google the artist, you will find that he is classified as one of the world’s most important painters of modern life and memory, who reinvigorated figurative painting from its stale perception in the history of art.

Tuymans is a painter who depicts moments of atrocities in our history, from events associated with WWII, the Holocaust, and Belgium’s days of colonization in the Congo, among others.

The exhibition was curated by the Menil’s Director, Josef Helfenstein, curator of modern/contemporary art, Toby Kamps, and Tuymans who is usually highly instrumental in selecting his own works, titling shows, and installing the artwork. All of the paintings on exhibit date from 1990 to 2012.

Accompanying the works by Tuymans are 25 portraits, masks, carved heads, funerary images, devotional figures and abstract paintings from the Menil’s permanent collection. The permanent holdings on view range in date from the early encaustic mummy portraits of the Faiyum region of Egypt in 30 B.C.E. to Ad Reinhardt’s black cross painting from the late 1960s. They are placed in specific dialogue with the contemporary work in an effort to accentuate the messages/meanings inherent in Tuymans’ paintings.

The 30 portrait paintings selected for this show are not just the typical traditional portraits of your grandmother or grandfather, but rather contain representations of some of history’s most esteemed and, at times, controversial leaders such as Condoleezza Rice in “Secretary of State” and Nazi architect, Albert Speer in the painting “Secrets.”

I would like to comment on some of the nuances that lingered in the exhibition as I wandered from gallery to gallery. This is what makes a review interesting anyway, and there is a beautiful catalogue, titled “Portraits for Purchase,” that contains an essay by Kamps and Robert Storr, as well as a free gallery brochure to assist visitors who desire more understanding of the facts.

I read the essays and materials prior to visiting the exhibition, which in my opinion is a must, since many of the historical figures represented by Tuymans were unfamiliar to me.

Or you can see the show and be completely confused throughout and read later.


What are we really seeing when we come to “Nice?” The answer is twofold. First, we see the environment, the exterior view the Menil curatorial staff fabricated to enhance the paintings’ messages and overall amnesiac feel. The quiet, soft mood of the natural lighting gives a feeling of being enveloped in a mausoleum. It is a somber, contemplative space much like the nearby Rothko Chapel, Tuymans’ pale and washed-out color palette of greens, yellows, blues, and grays barely surfacing from the vast wall of soft white underneath.

After confronting the environment, we meet the internal, the paintings themselves, which in the case of Tuymans, gives us an almost blank canvas, not quite blank, but literally veiled with cloudiness and unease that allow for a multivalent reading. As the artist comments, “Violence is the only structure underlying my work.”

This cloudiness is most pronounced in “Evidence,” “Self Portrait,” “Iphone,” “Himmler” and “Rumour,” where we are visually displaced from identifying or orienting ourselves with the subject. In “Secrets” and “Head,” the eyes are completely closed; while further still in “A Flemish Intellectual” and “Heritage I,” the physical elements are completely removed. Tuymans’ selection of figures with eyeglasses in many of the portraits incorporates a division or wall between subject and viewer, an impenetrable barrier of sorts. Further corroborating this idea, Tuymans, in a gallery talk in September, noted that he strips out the psychology of portraiture and creates a shell that is devoid of any emotional connectivity with the observer. The cold, rawness of this show is highlighted even further by the unfinished edges on many of the artist’s canvases leaving the nails exposed. The works are unframed and primitive in their presentation.

I am intrigued by Tuymans’ work and the Menil environment was relevant and top notch as usual. The distraction, however, particularly in the “Nice” exhibition, lies in the incorporation and dialogue of ancient and modern works from the permanent collection. The result of using these works in conjunction to reinforce theme or idea is one that reeks of forced ideology and a weak and rudimentary curatorial lesson to Menil visitors.

“Byzantine Things in the World”, a previous exhibition this year at the Menil, utilized this same type of dialogue between religious, Byzantine icons and modern and contemporary works. That exhibition successfully created new insight and an unusual interplay between works, thus revealing a refreshed view on things we thought we knew or typically take for granted when viewing these works alone.

The problem with the insertion of works such as Picasso’s “Woman in a Red Armchair,” for instance, and many of the other non-Tuymans works is the extent to which it resembled an afterthought, a far reach, a very abstracted message.

Tuymans’ paintings are so complex and visually exhausting that we need only them to do the show justice. In fact, I was bothered that ethnographic masks were sitting pristinely nearby only to echo in my head, “Yes, they do this in other cultures. Yes, this is a mask. Look at how they parallel one another.”

“Nice” is nice in many ways and not so much in a lot of others. If you are unfamiliar with Tuymans, this is an outstanding exhibition to introduce yourself to his work and his cynical personality and world views. This show will leave you perplexed about our world, painting, the Menil, the Menil’s founders John and Dominique de Menil, the artist himself, yourself, and what “Nice” is really telling us.

After all, Tuymans comments, “The Menil is in sharp contrast with the reality around it. It is a kind of theme park where race, cultural difference, gender come together under one roof…. ‘Nice,’ which itself is an image with tremendous meaning and also non-meaning, is meant to be an extreme reality check.”












All quotes taken from the “Nice” brochure essay adapted from Toby Kamps’s text in the accompanying publication.


Sarah Hamilton
UP Contributor