PRINT Summer 1983


A KNOT, A NIPPLE, an eye—what are these gnarls embedded in the glandular ooze flowing out of and down a plane of wood in one of Carroll Dunham’s recent paintings? They certainly started out as knots of pine; but here, as only part of the thin veneer that covers the sheet of plywood underneath, the knots become representations of themselves and together with the grain transform in a self-hallucination which initially suggests a multiple organ transplant performed by a surgeon with a degree in Surrealism.

The word “Surrealism” has yet to be fully rehabilitated in spite of the recent flood of disjunctive imagery and a renewed interest in myth and the sublime that mark a shift from an esthetic of making to an esthetic of expressing. Dunham has drawn succor from Surrealism’s most discredited side—those artists, like Dali, Matta, and Yves Tanguy, who turned to the “retrograde” pictorial devices of perspective and chiaroscuro in their anally rendered dreamscapes. He admits to the influence of Tanguy (his scale and precision) and no longer represses the strong impression made by Dali’s Crucifixion, 1954, which he saw as a child at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Dunham came of age in the late ’60s, at a time when the tendrils of the drug culture had reached even into the preppier precincts of Connecticut where he was born, raised, and educated. If Surrealism had been banished from high culture, it played no small role in the images and artifacts of the popular culture of the day. The beauty of Dunham’s organic delirium retrieves some of that psychedelic imagery, especially the flashy (even trashy) color.

A return to figuration and the exploration of the work of such artists as Giorgio de Chirico, Marc Chagall, and Reginald Marsh, are characteristic of many artists of Dunham’s generation, but he eschews multiple appropriations and art quotations in favor of a more direct embrace with his content—he is closer to the ferocity of Bill Jensen than to the cool calculation of David Salle. The fleshy pinks and oranges with their flaming extrusions and protrusions exhale an urgency that can be raw, ribald, eerie, mysterious, attractive, and repulsive, all at the same time. The paintings’ beauty is terribly naked; they are like aberrant orchids of flesh.

The analogy to orchids is quite literal. Most orchids contain both stamens and pistils and are capable of selfpollination; and this state may best describe the sexuality of art. A work of art may contain the experience of a specific gender but the work aspires to a resonant ambiguity. Unlike André Breton, who defined Surrealism as a masculine noun (in the “First Surrealist Manifesto,” 1924), Dunham rejects a specific gender for his paintings and refers to them as “sexual galaxies.” Much of his work probes the still undefined (undefinable?) edge where sexuality, intellect, and creativity meet.

Many hard-core Surrealist works fall short of their intent to express the dormant Urwelt of the unconscious and look instead like hackneyed illustrations of minor exotica. Most of the tributes paid to Freud by the Surrealists ignored the importance of his methodology; his critical acumen was precisely what made possible the unveiling of the libido. While it is significant that Dunham has chosen to reexamine Surrealist vocabulary, what makes his paintings convincing is a finely tuned intelligence that evolves out of the formalism of the ’60s and early ’70s—the kind of self-conscious logic that Breton railed against in his manifestoes.

Dunham was slow, cautious, and critical in his approach to painting. He spent a semester in New York in 1970 as Dorothea Rockburne’s studio assistant and was drawn to the prevailing currents of painting (Robert Mangold, Brice Marden, Robert Ryman). In 1972 he moved to New York and again worked for Rockburne, and began to have contact with artists like Mel Bochner and Barry Le Va. When he finally set to work in 1976, he was still in the position of knowing more about what he could not do than what he could do. He was critical of the large scale that had been so important to American painting since Jackson Pollock, and felt he could not paint in the mode of Ryman or Mangold. His first concerns were about drawing. How to draw? How to reinvent painting? What if a Mangold painting were to be executed more spontaneously? He began to make simple gestures on modulated monochrome grounds, first on paper, then on masonite—his need for clearly defined line necessitated the use of a resistant surface and a relatively transparent medium (casein). Dunham had returned to the beginning—that moment when writing and picturing were one. The simply looped, doodle-like calligraphy that dominates Dunham’s work through 1979 harks back to prehistoric cave drawings as well as to André Masson’s automatist drawings done in 1925–26, Pollock’s drip paintings, and Cy Twombly’s blackboard paintings.

In 1977–78, Dunham tried painting directly on the wall, employing stencils of doodles and a moundlike pictograph of a bent double loop. The surface of the wall was compatible with his intent, but the figurations seemed to need to be centered on a specific support. Dunham gave up this attempt to regiment spontaneity and returned to masonite and homosote, but now covered them first with spackling putty to achieve a rich, dry, and more active surface similar to that of a frescoed wall. The colors of the ground began to change from rather conventional grays and earth tones to more troublesome shades of sherbet. The pictographs drawn in charcoal moved from flatness into implied volume and a spatial interaction with the modulation of the ground. The small size of the panels (they range from 12 inches by 18 inches to no more than 4 feet by 6 feet), the casual physicality of surface, the simple wiry clarity of line, and the slightly perverse buzz of the color all conspired to move minimalism into the realm of figuration with a low-key elegance both intimate and intelligent. Dunham had quietly gained the confidence of his means and was ready to expand.

The change in plane and volume that occurred when freehand loops closed over the modulations of surface at first just happened, but then were not only permitted but encouraged. Dunham moved from pictured writing to picturing, from reductive abstraction to a more referential figuration. The paint becomes more active: striations of strokes begin to give intended volume to the interiors of the loops, the loops begin to congeal into a twisting moundlike shape with tuberous protrusions. The shapes and volumes are never completely closed but dissolve into multiple exchanges of figure and ground; both paint and configuration move downward with the dictates of gravity. The surface metamorphizes into a writhing dance of organs. While the images relate to Tanguy, the growing repertoire of bulbous shapes consists of more personal inventions that reflect Dunham’s interest in Flemish painting (Bouts, Bosch, and Brueghel). By 1981, the erotic references are heated up and more consciously explored in a group of works on paper with earthtones set aflame in orange, and with purely phallic shapes explored and elaborated in the borders.

If the subject matter was not to overpower the painting, it had to be firmly grounded. In 1982, Dunham started painting on plywood using the grain of the-wood veneer to generate the configuration, making literal Leonardo’s proto-Rorschachian advice, often quoted by the Surrealists, to let the imagination wander while contemplating stains and spots on the wall. By drawing the configuration from the actual surface, Dunham is able to free his imagination to create more complex and intense imagery and simultaneously achieve a procedural clarity that encourages the viewer to participate in the image.

The short, dry strokes that tended to accumulate in clustered striations in Dunham’s previous work now acquire a new resonance and tension as they mock and exaggerate the striations of the grain of the wood surface. No opening seems too deep, no color too bright, no form too fantastic, because the configuration always returns to the surface, moving with and against the grain. The dry pigment, casein, and charcoal have a flat plainness and clarity which reflects the wood in a tutti-frutti mirage of itself. The paint can as readily inflate into a radiant volume as it can deflate into flat, abrasive scratchiness. Different veneers encourage different configurations. The multiple bands of oak grain converging to points are first echoed by a black wash outline of a peak, then mocked by an orange and mauve banded tubular volume in Large Oak, 1982. The tightly packed, more regular grain of zebra wood encourages a more linear image, with clusters of ganglia and a sea anemonelike form dripping tentacles in First Zebra, 1982.

With Dunham’s two most recent paintings, Horizontal Bands and Big Pine, both 1982–83, the color and imagery have become more varied and intense and have begun to spread over the entire surface. Bands of color both interrupt and complicate the image while binding it firmly to the edges of the support. These bands move with the grain over, under, and through the configuration, speeding up and bringing near-pandemonium to the figure-ground reversals. The purely analytical intent given wood veneer when it appeared as an element of Cubist collage has here been wed to an exquisite derangement. The clarity of Dunham’s intentions and the organizational powers of hindsight do little to account for the shocking beauty of his work of the past year.

Klaus Kertess writes fiction and art criticism.