Luc Tuymans: Don't take his images at face value
Last year, when President and Mrs. Obama were selecting art for temporary White House display, I felt a twinge of regret that they were limited to work by American artists. At least two pictures by 51-year-old Belgian painter Luc Tuymans would offer a lot of contemplative substance hanging in the national residence. Both are now in his remarkable and cautionary traveling retrospective of some 70 paintings at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

"The Heritage VI" (1996) is a portrait of the late Joseph Milteer, a notorious Georgia white supremacist who figures in numerous conspiracy theories about the 1963 JFK assassination. Tuymans' painting, based on a widely circulated photograph, adorns the cover of the show's excellent catalog.

Differences between the oil painting and its photographic source grow stark the longer that you look. The painting is gray in tone, recalling the black and white photograph, but instead of black Tuymans employs a dark mix of greenish-brown. The palest blues, pinks and occasional yellows flicker from within the under-painting. Ordinary gray is transformed into something closer to a deathly pallor, like blood draining from flesh or cadaverous decay.

Tuymans has cropped the original photographic portrait just below the chin, which visually pushes it forward, like a close-up. The subtle change enhances a feeling of intimacy between viewer and subject -- a feeling slightly creepy, since odds are the bespectacled, slightly grinning older man with the white pompadour who is now in your face will be recognized by few who see it. Milteer's head is also moved slightly off-center, creating a less static composition than in the camera image. Altogether the portrait shifts from formally posed to momentary -- a casual glance in passing, here nailed down for our proximate inspection.

The picture is anything but photographic in its realism, emphasizing the differences between the camera image on which it is based and the painting that it has become. It has no frame, and the tacks along the sides that hold the canvas to the wooden stretcher bars are left exposed. As if to emphasize the difference and underscore its handmade quality, Tuymans carefully painted around the nails.

Perhaps the most remarkable variation is achieved in the paint-handling: oil pigments laid down in short, quick, almost nervous marks. Tuymans paints all his pictures in one sustained sitting, and if he doesn't like the finished product he throws it away and tries again. Although this small canvas (about 21 by 17 inches) is vertical, nearly every carefully placed, self-evidently applied brush stroke is horizontal -- including the brush strokes that create the vertical drapery folds behind Milteer's head.

The result of all that emphatic, sometimes jittery horizontal motion is a distinct if elusive impression of a blur -- of a face glimpsed on its way by but not truly seen nor remotely understood. "The Heritage VI" flatly contradicts our assumptions about portraiture, which hover around the belief that an artist is somehow exposing the sitter's complex inner life. Do not count on appearances, this acutely considered portrait of a grandfatherly fellow -- a venomous, perhaps even deadly bigot -- calmly but insistently says. Milteer matters because an artist has lavished attention on him, but under no circumstances should you take what you see at face value.

Amid a downpour of pictures

Pictures are consummate dissemblers, and they always have been. The stakes have risen exponentially in a society like ours, however, since we are drowning beneath an ever-rising sea of camera images. In the 16th century, when portraiture first became fashionable, the odds of seeing any kind of picture outside the authoritative precincts of a church or government building were remote for almost everyone. Today, we see a steady stream of them by the time breakfast is done, and we might have even made a few of our own with a camera-phone. Tuymans' paintings, all in some way photo-derived, bring the phenomenon into paradoxical view. As an artist he has an uncanny capacity for using paint to identify a photograph's fragmentary context.

Tuymans decided to paint Milteer in the wake of the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City -- a monstrous crime that many viewers of mass media immediately ascribed to violent radicals of foreign and Arab or Islamic origin. The lead terrorist, of course, turned out to be a white, Christian, conservative, U.S. Army veteran who had fought in Desert Storm and who was born and raised near Niagara Falls. A more conventionally "all-American" fellow would be hard to imagine. Timothy McVeigh, militia enthusiast, was likely inspired by events he read about in "The Turner Diaries," the noxious 1978 novel by a white nationalist that the FBI has called "the bible of the racist right."

The second picture that is suitable for long White House contemplation is blandly titled "The Secretary of State." Painted almost a decade later than "The Heritage VI," it's a closely cropped portrait of Condoleezza Rice. It is also shocking in its utter drabness, given the immediately recognizable subject. Blotches of watery brown puddle in the corners of her eyes. Rice squints and scowls, a few teeth glimpsed between slightly parted lips, in a pose that seems instantly familiar from countless news images that showed her standing in the blazing Texas sunlight behind President George W. Bush.

Here she, not he, is the focus of attention. But to what end is not immediately apparent. Instead, we're invited to contemplate the sheer, unadulterated weirdness of her history and role on the recent international stage. A pictorially bland "official portrait" this is not.

Jointly organized with Ohio's Wexner Center, where it had its debut in the fall, the show is a thorough introduction to a major artist not much seen on the West Coast. Tuymans was born and raised in Antwerp, where he still lives, and he studied art there and in Brussels. He abruptly quit painting in 1982 as the melodramatic steamroller of Neo-Expressionism plowed first across Europe and then the United States, and he picked up a Super-8 movie camera instead. When he returned to oil painting in 1988, his work was informed by what he had learned from framing scenes in the viewfinder and editing moving pictures for context and duration. Several painting projects in the retrospective were conceived as suites -- multiple canvases that hang together as virtual outtakes from extended narratives.

Along with bodily disease (which to the artist seems as much about painting's bodily infirmity as it is about a person's), inhumanity is a common theme. Works articulate aspects of the ghastly Nazi epoch, Belgium's grim colonial adventures in Africa's Congo and America's surrender to fear and superpower grandiosity during the Bush administration. (In a bizarre 2005 riff that evokes " Dancing With the Stars," a twisted and archaic ballroom couple swirls across a dance floor adorned with the state seal of Texas, a star ringed by a triumphant wreath of oak and olive leaves.)

Like his Antwerp ancestor, the Baroque painter and international diplomat Peter Paul Rubens, Tuymans casts a sharp eye on political preening and power. But who but Tuymans could evoke such modern awfulness in a floral still-life painting -- a sexualized close-up of a blooming orchid, painted dusky green and bilious brown, at once lovely, seductive, intimidating and finally repulsive?

The most immediate precedent for Tuymans' paintings is Gerhard Richter, the German master of blurred photographic fragmentation and post-Warhol pictorial distance, both figurative and abstract. Richter painted his devastating and ambiguous suite of 15 paintings of German domestic terrorists, the Baader-Meinhof gang, in 1988, the year Tuymans put down his movie camera and picked up a brush again.

But the tone of Tuymans' work is completely different, the crepuscular grubbiness of abasement substituting for Richter's sleek sense of epic tragedy. New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl was dead-right to note that Tuymans' "grayish daubs announce that [art's] war against mass media" is over, because it is truly lost.

In its place Tuymans injects an inescapable assertion of radical doubt, which infects the reception of both mass media images and art images, including his own. It's a strange position for an artist to take in relation to what he does, but ultimately it's convincing. Tuymans' paintings show that he knows what he's doing as he does it, but that what happens after he's done is up to you.

christopher.knight@latimes.com