PRINT May 1994


AT THIS WRITING four vertical paintings, one tondo, and one large horizontal painting by Carroll Dunham are in varying stages of restless completion. The vertical paintings are the ones that pose the “real dilemma.”1 Dunham has always forged a shifting symbiosis of formal discipline and intuitive permissiveness; becoming ever more pronounced, the latter has now propelled something “more figurative” to the fore in his work. With the intimation of a figure comes the possibility of a literary, even narrative reading that would be alien to an artist so totally committed to a purely visual, nonverbal code.

As a ’60s teenager, Dunham responded to the fevered extravagances of drug-culture decor. Later he was drawn to the squirming discomfort of Hieronymus Bosch’s fabulism, and to the pale, tuberous figures studding the landscapes of Dieric Bouts; and he began to explore the erratic subjective complexities of the more pictorial side of Surrealism—Yves Tanguy’s desert-bound, contorted bone figures, and Matta’s robotic star warriors. When Dunham set about making art seriously, in the mid ’70s, he pitted his Surreal proclivities, and his Nordic tendencies to accentuate the cold, clammy fears and desires of mortal flesh, against the cool procedural clarities and emptied-out center favored by many in the preceding generation of artists, including Robert Mangold and Mel Bochner. Line led the way.

Perhaps more emphatically than any of his peers, Dunham has re-empowered the hand, making it a seismographic recorder of the shocks, eruptions, and tremors on the wayward paths of his nerve endings. As his curving line has burrowed deeper and deeper into the craters of his imagination, his drawing has grown more polymorphically referential, moving from simple elliptical doodles and loops to embrace panoramic carnivals of glandular, intestinal, floral, and landscape allusions. In the background of Dunham’s work are the script of Cy Twombly, the elegiac linearity of the later Willem de Kooning, and Brice Marden’s reexplorations of Jackson Pollock and Chinese calligraphy. But Dunham has developed his line in a more disjunctive panoply of mark-making possibilities than his elders did; his hand moves from wayward automatist curves and scratches to carefully rendered passages of the kind of illusionistic shading and forming that was taboo in late-Modernist making. Without making reference to any specific pop iconography, his amorphous configurations enfold the loopy contours and stylization of animated cartoons. Purity has been expelled from his vocabulary in favor of openness and reinvention.

What has given Dunham’s line visual credibility and power is his ability to fuse it with the structure of his supports: his drawing spews a delirious organic architecture of the planar shape on which it is made. In most of his paintings and drawings from 1982 to 1987, linear configurations are cued by and reflect the knots and wavy striations in the grain of the wood and wood-veneer surfaces on which they are executed. The planar surface becomes a hallucination of itself, conflating Jasper Johns–ian self-referentiality, Surrealist automatism, and Cubist trompe l’oeil collage. This grounding and objectification of the subjective became more pictorial and complex in 1989, when Dunham began to unfurl his linear desires on bare canvas. The hormonal harmonics of his line turn the outer edges of these paintings into horizons or precarious life supports for the amorphous configurations within them, which are keyed in scale and shape to the size and shape of the canvas. Plane and image draw life from each other. The images writhe in as many shifts of volume and flatness, figure and ground, inside and outside, as they do in shifts of allusion; but they all grow out of and become the structure of the plane.

A chorus of penises may have orchestrated some of Dunham’s paintings and drawings of the mid ’80s, but his configurations are more usually ruled by ambiguity, multiplicity, and lack of closure. While his line revels in often scatological excretions and swelling nodes, his obsessive forming has never settled on one class of shape and reference. Dunham moves from allover to centralized formations, from peeked-at vaginal or mountain clefts to aerial or internal views of intestinal landscapes. One group of work tends to suggest the next: the horizontal painting and the tondo that I saw in his studio expand and explode the mound and double-headed-hammer shape (it started as a kind of glyphic “wave”) from his immediately preceding works. Some of those canvases incorporated painted Styrofoam balls, giving his medium the literal bulbousness that he also drew; now, the tondo form brings the shape of the support itself into play with this disturbingly hilarious roundness.

For their part, the four, figuratively specific vertical paintings seem indebted to the oozing elliptoids in the “Mound” paintings of 1991–92, which could equally suggest some exotic coral formation, a heap of decaying garbage, or an outrageously aberrant head. Like the physical transgressiveness of the Styrofoam balls, the illusive transgressiveness of the figure has become an uninvited guest in Dunham’s imagination; exacerbating the plane, it demands to be incorporated into it. The “Mound” paintings spread out on a horizontal support, but the head that they suggested required some form of body, so the support is now vertical. Figure and support stand as one: where perspectival orthogonals indicate a place for the figure to stand, they angle from the support’s lower corners, making the bottom edge of the canvas an illusive floor.

The figure itself is in an organic convulsion of forming. Nothing fits or closes into a homogeneous contour. It is as if the figure’s genetic code had been scrambled, and must struggle to adjust to the structural demands of the planar architecture and to the grotesquerie of Dunham’s fantasy. The penis awkwardly strives to find its proper place and is confounded by the presence of a vagina that also serves as a mouth. This cosmi-comic hermaphroditism is endemic not to nature but to the ambiguous erotics of art. Dunham refers to his figure as a “creature,” but it is a creature of painting, born out of his imagination’s insemination of the plane. His purposeful ambiguities and multiple referentiality have not been violated, only made more tenuous.

What is missing here? When I saw them, there was as yet no color in the paintings. And so this writer is spared the frustration of verbalizing what defies verbalization even more than drawing does. What can be noted is that in recent years Dunham has been “sexually” attracted to a raucously impolite Technicolor that is in complete accord with the visceral, cartoony contortions of his line. As befits their more singular presence, these new figures, I am told, will mostly be engulfed by one strident color rather than the variegated hues that previously coded his images. For Dunham, color has become the payoff of painting, conspiring with drawing to challenge and exacerbate the plane of our consciousness into forming new creatures of thought.


1. This and all succeeding quotations are from a conversation between the author and Dunham in his studio, 18 January 1994.