Painted in 1993, Thumb appears to show exactly what its title describes. Tuymans has filled the canvas with a thumb, magnified out of all proportion and removed from all context. In this way, he has reduced the thumb to abstraction: it is merely the visual product of the modulation of tones of colour and has an almost formal appearance that apes abstract art. We do not appreciate Thumb on the grounds of its formal, artistic appearance - Tuymans deliberately suppresses style in his paintings for precisely this reason. He does not want to distract us. Tuymans' paintings usually rely on found images and photographs, from which he creates a painting that deliberately distorts or muddies some of its meaning. He exploits the flaws of the artistic process, deliberately failing to fully represent his subject or adequately convey any meaning.
To emphasise this, Tuymans takes images - like Thumb's source - that often have a sense of documentary authority. This is the flotsam of a life lived, the evidence from a process or a moment or a story that the viewer cannot know. The memory that formerly filled the source with meaning has been lost. In its new context, it introduces a potent sense of unease, and this is emphasised in Thumb by the fact that it is the fragment of a human that we see. Thumb, along with several other similar pictures painted during the same period, shows a tiny body part under magnification, but these different parts fail entirely to add up to create a whole that we can recognise or interpret.
The fact that it is a decontextualised body part that we see heightens the eerie sense of potential violence that underlies the picture. The viewer is unequipped to understand the picture, and is forced to confront the possibility that it is a shard of information from an unpleasant whole. We are forced to wonder if the person alive, or have they been murdered? Is this a medical image, like those in from his Der diagnostische Blick series? Is this thumb in some way deformed? Is it a document of someone's illness? Is it symbolic? The thumb has several meanings, being used to express approval when raised, disapproval or condemnation when pointed down. It is an active signifier, and yet in Thumb, stranded, takes on all and none of these meanings. Tuymans thrives on demonstrating the narrow confines of artistic communication. He abandons us, dooms us to failure in our quest to understand his painting. By presenting an ambiguous, isolated thumb, Tuymans lays bare the dynamics - and more importantly, limitations - of art and interpretation.