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PRINT November 2002

SLOW BURN: CARROLL DUNHAM

On the occasion of the first major survey of the work of CARROLL DUNHAM, which runs through February 2, 2003, at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, ROBERT STORR looks back on the career of this idiosyncratic artist who has spent over two decades “exploring Surrealism’s more id-enriched recesses.”

I FIRST SAW A WORK BY CARROLL DUNHAM NEARLY TWENTY YEARS AGO on a wall in Dorothea Rockburne’s studio. I was there to rehearse the execution of one of her wall drawings, Neighborhood, for the Museum of Modern Art’s 1984 show “A Century of Modern Drawing.” The Dunham in question was a smallish painting on paper, and the gnarled pink forms and dense gray ground of the image stood out in their brooding awkwardness against the expansive white perfection of Rockburne’s space. I couldn’t place the work aesthetically and had no idea who might have made it, until Rockburne told me that it was by an artist—then in his midthirties and virtually unknown—who had been her assistant and my predecessor as an installation draftsman. This information helped a little, but in the pristine loft the work remained an anomaly. That very fact kept me looking at it, plus the degree to which it tapped into my own divided loyalties between minimal abstraction on the one hand and visceral funk on the other, a combination not uncommon among immigrants from beyond the Hudson, where Dalí-, Tanguy-, or Miróesque biomorphs had cross-pollinated with indigenous American weirdness but where the exalted severities of Mies and the Bauhaus also flourished.

However, as I eventually learned, Dunham wasn’t from out there. A Connecticut Yankee, he had been growing weirdness of his own, first in Hartford, where he had gone to art school, and afterward right under the noses of New York’s Minimalist and Conceptualist elite, whom he had come to know about through Mel Bochner, a visiting artist at Dunham’s alma mater, Trinity College, and later through acquaintance with Rockburne, Barry Le Va, and others who had given the ’70s its formal rigor and its aura of uncompromising seriousness.

But this was the ’80s, and good-bye to all that—at least for the first several years of the decade, when skirmishes between exuberantly overreaching neo-expressionists and theory-intoxicated, style-savvy deconstructionists kept the art world on the run. Dunham was neither of these things. His breakthrough drawings and paintings on plywood and veneer of that time were too intimate and too eccentric to make much of an impression on the larger scene, although artists appear to have picked up on what he was doing or at least on the same set of formal variables (witness Sherrie Levine’s mid-’80s plywood-plug abstractions and the wood-grain simulacra of the young Robert Gober.) Only Dunham’s contemporary Tishan Hsu—an artist who deserves another look—matched him in the impacted sci-fi hybridities of his work. Yet, by the time Dunham took his solo bow at Baskerville & Watson in 1985 (Artists Space gave him his first one-person show, in 1981), a wobble I could already be felt in the widening gyrations of the full-tilt ’80s boogie. With their warping metamorphic body shapes and proliferating rings and other geometric devices—imagine one of Al Held’s multicolored ’70s or ’80s space frames in a shit storm of gloppy off-color asteroids—Dunham’s work appeared not only fully formed, and authoritatively deformed, but suddenly, queasily apropos. In that hyperactive moment just before the seven-year ’80s binge turned into a long, long hangover, the uncool of Dunham’s mixed-up sensibility was coolness itself, a superficially unsightly but subliminally satisfying mix of knowing, disciplined gestural abstraction and a riot of semiotic ambiguities that burlesqued neo-expressionist excess while going it one better. The pictures were mostly quite modest, but the ambition was not—and of course the imagery itself was immodest in its every lurid dimension.

So count Dunham as one of the last of the ’80s painters to make a splash, but take note that he slipped in from the wings, belonged to no nameable tendency, and, like the most skillful of character actors, knew how to upstage the leads just as they were finishing their big speeches.

And count him as one of the first ’90s artists in the sense that he got the jump on practically everybody when it came to exploring Surrealism’s more id-enriched recesses. Everybody on the East Coast, that is, where Surrealism had been cast into outer darkness—or rather squeezed back to its own fetid inner darkness—by ’50s and ’60s formalism, with occasional outbreaks in the work of Claes Oldenburg, Lee Bontecou, Yayoi Kusama, Paul Thek, and Eccentric Abstractionists Louise Bourgeois and Eva Hesse being the conspicuous exceptions. In that connection it is perhaps unsurprising that the first Dunham I saw in a major collection was at the apartment of modernist collectors extraordinaire Victor and Sally Ganz, just off a hallway where works by Hesse held pride of place.

Until it was rehabilitated by postmodemist criticism in the ’80s—and then to the benefit of photography but not painting—Surrealism was a New York taboo, an essential but nervously recalled historical phenomenon rather than a current option. Indeed, it was as if Surrealism’s obsessive but mystified sexuality had been the adolescent enthusiasm of the ’40s and ’50s art world but now embarrassed all the grown-ups. And only a few of those who stubbornly refused to mature—Oldenburg, for instance, and belatedly Bourgeois—were forgiven such regressions. In Chicago, the Bay Area, Los Angeles, and places in between, things were different. There Surrealism, stripped of its suave salon manners and reinvigorated by an ardent backseat lust and an angry antiromanticism, flourished openly for generations, with Peter Saul presently presiding as elder of this obstreperous tribe and Mike Kelley working its flanks as all-around provocateur.

Recently Saul’s and Kelley’s approaches, and those of others of similarly unruly persuasions, have made inroads in New York—though resistance to their pointed lack of decorum remains strong. But no one really expected that the work of a downtown “insider” would erupt into comparably aberrant formal and iconographic permutations. Especially given the company that Dunham kept not only his apprenticeship with Rockburne, but among the whiz kids of neo-geo, with whose extravagant productions his paintings were seen when he moved to the Sonnabend Gallery in 1989. To be sure, the buttoned-up travesty of Donald Judd and Frank Stella’s aesthetic positivism that has preoccupied Peter Halley, and Jeff Koons’s quest for the Holy Grail of self-possession in America’s heartbreaking mirage of plenty have less in common with each other than they appeared to back when the artists made up two of Sonnabend’s “Fab Four” (Meyer Vaisman and Ashley Bickerton being the others). But no matter how low-down and dirty their image worlds were—and Koons, a former student of Ed Paschke, comes closest to making the crossover to true funk that Dunham has effected—none of the four had any idea how to “hang loose” (with them, Pop’s finish took on a gaudy, hyperfetishized new aspect), and fabricators or programmatic practitioners all, none could improvise with his chosen materials.

As most observers are quick to say, Dunham is a doodler’s doodler. Drawing is the alpha and omega of his activity, with painting and printmaking the beneficiaries along the way, insofar as Dunham’s scrappy, antic, but elegantly offhand line makes color and surface fight for position and, in the process, show their true stuff. In essence, Dunham’s entire production is a kind of discursive, frame-by-static-frame animation of a few basic forms that have a penchant for slipping their contours and oozing into the void around them or, conversely, contracting around smaller voids or cavities inside their lumpy, pitted, tufted skins. Looking at Dunham’s pictures in series can be like watching molds growing under a microscope, or sea anemones mutating in radioactive tide pools.

If I have underscored the correspondences between Dunham and Saul—they now share a connection to the Nolan/Eckman Gallery—or Kelley, with whom he shares ties to Metro Pictures—it is in part to draw attention to the unexpected convergence in recent years of art worlds that seemed perennially remote from one another but also, in part, to redraw the congruencies that usually come up in discussion of Dunham’s work, in particular the parallel with Philip Guston.

True, both Dunham and Guston have fathered their own race of grotesques. Guston’s monsters have the bloated look of the reclusive drinker, smoker, eater, and compulsive monologuist that he was (Oblomov in a soiled T-shirt) or the energetic blankness of compulsive marauders—cossacks turned Klansmen in the imaginative equation that links the painter’s roots in Russia to his youth in depression-era America. Dunham’s creatures, all flexing lips, labia, and sphincters, bouncing testicles, and squirting members, are manic soldiers in the battle of the sexes, iconic Dickheads and Holey Harridans for an age of joyless fucking and helpless fucking-up. Moreover, both Dunham and Guston honor high modernism in the breach by violating its laws in ways that render them more vivid than does the work of average law abiders. Thus, for example, the broad-brush matrices of Guston’s last decade gave scale and a paradoxical robustness to the atmospheric hatch of his Abstract Expressionist paintings even as they set the stage for the cartoon civil wars and melancholic self-caricature that were anathema to the admirers of his “signature” work of the ’50s and ’60s.

Dunham’s allusions to earlier, more ennobled modes of painting have nothing directly to do with his known studio past—there is no Dunham the Good before Dunham the Bad as there is with Guston—but the range of references is wide. Stain painting à la Helen Frankenthaler is the predicate for Dunham’s “Shape” canvases of the late ’80s; more vibrant than the work of Frankenthaler’s many acolytes and more so even than her own attenuated versions of her celebrated innovation, Dunham’s riffs on this depleted technique are, by virtue of their assuredness and lack of pretension, in better taste as well. Meanwhile, the lewd scribblings and scatological surfacing of Cy Twombly’s paintings turn into the fluid graffiti, absurd Styrofoam ball clusters, and acrylic clottings of Dunham’s canvases of the ’90s. In passing there are also sidelong glances at John Wesley’s sublimely simple monochrome palette and sublimely silly linear formatting—this is Wesley’s Second Coming as well. And, in the last two or three years especially, though the picture at Rockburne’s signaled the affinity, there have been nods toward Jasper Johns’s impacted, jigsaw puzzle compositions, marking the first time in a while that a younger artist has proved that it is still possible to say something interesting by talking back to Johns in his own hermetic language. Meanwhile, undergirding all this, though never reproduced in its austere effects, is the procedural clarity of Minimal and Conceptual art. In that connection Dunham’s messiness is never truly messy no matter how garish his hues or riotous his imagery may seem. Instead, his work has acquired the spaciousness of a LeWitt or a Ryman or, said another way, retained the organic convolutions of the congested drawing on Rockburne’s wall but opened up to and annexed the white vastness that once surrounded it.

Guston’s relation to “mainstream” modem art is that of a first-generation American convert whose command of its conventions was hard come by and whose partial rejection of them later on was more arduous yet. Dunham and his contemporaries are products of middle-class upbringings and good educations that taught modernism as the byproduct of natural selection while all around things were dying on the vine or overripening. And like many of his contemporaries he is an appropriator for whom styles exist as ready-made opportunities for sophisticated play—although it is clear that Dunham is playing for keeps.

The separate trajectories of Guston and Dunham idea their work in crucial ways. Guston viewed the world tragically even when he was telling jokes; Dunham sees it comically even when his paintings depict global Armageddon. Stipulating this is not to belittle Dunham, and certainly not to make him sound housebroken by comparison to the old bohemian bear. It is simply a matter of defining the role of circumstance and temperament in manifestations of a genre—the grotesque—where such opposites as tragedy and comedy are inextricably linked. Given the vitality of the two painters’ work it is not stretching the point in this regard to say that the distinction between Dunham and Guston is akin to that between the Tiepolo of the Scherzi and the Goya of the Caprichos. The contrast even extends to the differences between Dunham’s calligraphic linearity and Guston’s abrupt markmaking, or Dunham’s rococo pinks, blues, and yellows and Guston’s dark baroque chiaroscuro reds and blacks. (In which case, Saul and Kelley might be seen as the Thomas Rowlandson and James Gillray of their era.)

But so much for historical precedent, although it is useful as a reminder that Dunham is not merely a quick, if ephemeral, wit but one of the liveliest exponents of the long-standing tradition of “deformalism” to which, in varying ways, Matthew Ritchie—who interviews Dunham for the show’s catalogue—Sue Williams, Lari Pittman, and a host of rising or midcareer trendsetters also belong. However, this is not the time to measure Dunham against the shadows of the past, nor those of his colleagues, but instead the chance to look at the world in the light his own work casts. For all the muck and mayhem his pictures portray it is in fact a gentle light, a view of folly, instinctive violence and chaos by a good-natured man who does not argue with his characters or through them but identifies with them and their destructive willfulness as recognizable projections of “the human condition”—that old saw of the postwar era—minus the rhetoric of existential angst and plus a healthy dose of hip, deflating humor. There aren’t many artists like this around these days who are capable of pricking our vanity while eschewing the temptation to lecture, who genuinely amuse while addressing our weaknesses, in particular the weakness for schemes of self-improvement and the determination to take the most ludicrous aspects of our nature seriously. For the last twenty years, Dunham has provided a much needed antidote to the pretentiousness of art that presumes to tell the world all about the postmodern condition— that old saw of the post-everything era—while making pictures that lurch, belch, and generally carry on in an oddly (very oddly) life-affirming manner. In that context what Dunham once said about Miró in these pages on the occasion of MoMA’S 1993 retrospective of the Spanish painter’s work—is a good place to start as one reexamines Dunham’s own career this fall at the New Museum: “I came away from the show feeling gratitude to Miró. His journey greatly expanded our freedom, and I feel sure that at some point people will look back at this century—so mechanical, so ‘mass-produced’—and learn deep truths about us through his work. All the clichés about alienation and the ‘monsters of the id’ can be found there, but they come side by side with a sweetness we have a hard time embracing these days.”

Robert Storr, an artist, critic, and freelance curator, is Rosalie Solow Professor of Modern Art at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University.