Among the hundreds of exhibitions Tate has staged in the past decade, just nine have been retrospectives of living painters. And of these only three were devoted to artists under the age of 70: Luc Tuymans in 2004, Peter Doig in 2008, Chris Ofili in 2010. This trio has, since the 1990s, led the revitalising of a beleaguered medium in a conceptual age, but – apart from Ofili’s designs for the Royal Ballet’s Titian Metamorphosis this summer – none has shown in London since their Tate surveys. All three, exceptionally, opened solo exhibitions this week, affording a rare chance to consider how this influential mid-career generation is evolving.
The common themes of Luc Tuymans: Allo! at David Zwirner, Chris Ofili: to Take and to Give at Victoria Miro, and Peter Doig: New Paintings at Michael Werner are meditations on beauty, seduction by colour and light, flirtation with the exotic, offset by the drive to set such aesthetic delights somehow at a distance.
Allo! takes its name from the greeting squawked by a parrot at an Antwerp bar near Tuymans’ home, a jokey reference to modernism’s dependence on primitive cultures. The visual sources for his latest paintings turn lightly on an abiding Tuymans concern: colonialism. On his iPhone he photographed stills from the 1942 film The Moon and Sixpence, based on Somerset Maugham’s novel about Gauguin, in which, after his death, the artist’s doctor discovers an array of swirling landscapes and sensuous nudes in his Tahitian studio, minutes before his widow sets the lot alight.
Tuymans has enormous fun with the multiple layers of representation here. Cropped paintings of the faux-canvases, rendered in Technicolor in the mostly black-and-white film, are depicted in a blur of sickly pink-oranges and turquoise, with an eerie fluorescence suggesting the glow of projection. The forlorn, old European figure of the doctor and Tuymans’ own dark silhouette, reflected by his iPhone camera, merge with these visions of Hollywood kitsch in a trompe l’oeil effect that insists all media are simulated, every image a construct. Yet it is, triumphantly, the unique medium of oil on canvas, and Tuymans’ accomplished manipulation of light, that brings it all to life.
Tuymans is a history painter who has long subverted his feel for rich tonalities to produce queasily ambivalent, bleached-out canvases, based on photographic sources, with political resonances ranging from the Holocaust – an oddly angled interior that turns out to be “Gaskamer” (1986) – to a critique of the Bush administration in “Secretary of State” (2005), a portrait of Condoleezza Rice. Although this new series carries an air of menace in Allo! – “yes, there’s still a sufficient amount of anger management in it,” Tuymans agreed when I watched him install the show – he gloriously lets his hair down. Brush marks are looser, more painterly; grey-black harmonies sing, even as the artist, under cover of mock-kitsch, luxuriates in colour; decorous compositions balance reveries of sensual abandon.
If Tuymans apes film sets, Ofili in To Take and to Give creates a painterly world of exquisite artifice which developed out of his designs for the backdrops for Metamorphosis at the Royal Opera House. He is not the first mid-career painter to derive inspiration, as well as a confident monumentality, from working in theatre – Picasso, Chagall, Hockney all did so. The joy of his new show is that it reveals the myriad ways, formal and narrative, in which this enriches his work.
The centrepiece is an eight-metre painting where a pyramid of nymphs, presumably those in the goddess Diana’s grove, surge and fall against an abstracted, loosely patterned ground in a composition suggesting the flow of water, the rush of air, against clustering, dynamic bodies. Although the composition is masterly, the execution carries over a lightness from the smaller drawings and watercolour sketches that here surround it: sprinkled tropical colour, staining, smudges, enhance the sense of fluidity, unruly passion, a world in flux, evoked by Ovid, a Roman poet dealing in Greek mythology at the start of the Christian era.
Ofili’s serpentine, tapering, swooning nudes in ink and charcoal perfectly catch Ovid’s spirit of erotic play; luminous watercolours are full of pathos. Purple-robed, hairy-chested Actaeon, the young hunter turned into a deer, then killed by his own hounds, is a descendent of Ofili’s “Captain Shit”: strutting, fragile, doomed. Pastel landscapes draw on the luscious vegetation of Trinidad, where Ofili lives. By contrast, the moonlit “Ovid Windfall” depicts an ethereal presence releasing a vapour between slivers of colours which transforms into a female figure/spirit.
Ofili has cited the “sincerity” of Trinidad as an influence. It seems to me he achieves conviction by using theatre and narrative as a buffer, allowing but limiting authenticity in the depiction of an exotic paradise. That too is the challenge for Peter Doig, his Trinidad neighbour. Doig’s gracefully hung show of 12 new paintings inaugurating Michael Werner’s discreet London gallery made me rethink my criticism of his Tate retrospective as vapidly decorative.
Of the three artists here, Doig is the least concerned with ideas or narrative, and the one who makes images – boys playing cricket on a Caribbean beach; a horse and ghostly young rider – which look most simply, easily pretty. He is also (this is not unrelated) the most pricey: his “White Canoe”, a nocturne of a boat reflected in a lake, fetched £5.7m in 2007.
Like Tuymans, Doig early on used photographs and film stills to provide a cocktail of images for such dreamscapes. In his new work, however, there is a fresh engagement with the real world of Trinidad, coloured by a weird, sometimes toxic palette, and fantastical elements. A self-portrait in a boat – Doig’s leitmotif, symbol of restlessness, journeying, the lure of the foreign – with a pink hat dropped over his face, and a giant crow hovering, is at once stubborn and delicate. A large painting of the wall of a Port of Spain bar, lined with Caribbean flags and topped by a mauvish strip of Caribbean hills and sky, muses on abstraction. Nothing is quite unified or resolved, which is the point. Maybe it is churlish to ask for more than this elegant doubt about painting’s past and future.
‘Luc Tuymans: Allo!’, David Zwirner Gallery, to November 17, www.davidzwirner.com
‘Chris Ofili: to Take and to Give’, Victoria Miro Gallery, to November 10, www.victoria-miro.com
‘Peter Doig: New Paintings’, Michael Werner Gallery, to December 22, www.michaelwerner.com