New York

Carroll Dunham

Sonnabend Gallery

When Carroll Dunham turned from wood panels to a more conventional ragboard ground in his previous show, the bulbous cartoony forms, which had played off the knotholes and wavy grain of the support, suddenly seemed to face the world directly rather than getting caught up in a self-referential game. In the current show of works on canvas, the hints at bad taste, which Dunham previously leavened by thinning his strident palette and feathering his line into graceful curves, have blossomed into truly bombastic glory.

There’s a playfulness about the images that sometimes descends into adolescent obviousness: in one, penises and vulvas, reduced to pictographic signs, fly around the canvas above a landscape of undulating sexualized forms. Larger than before and intensely colored in kicky ’60s hues, with heavy black outlines delineating areas and wandering casually across the canvas, the new works are like a cross between Philip Guston, Vassily Kandinksy, and Dr. Seuss, with a sideways glance at Terry Winters’ floppy pods. But all this style scavenging is never really explicit; it never becomes the point of the picture. Instead the paintings make their allusions in a feinting way, treating styles of abstraction as simply another formal dimension, to be mixed and matched to achieve the desired historical or emotional temperature.

Dunham’s pictures remain coy about asserting their terms, but they turn this hesitation into a virtue at a time when many artists seem frozen between the shriveling irony of appropriation and a deadly return to dried up Modernist styles. In fact it is just this sense of being on the edge—of bad taste, of appropriation, of meaning—that characterizes the new work. Dunham seems perched on the edge quite happily, even playfully. These boisterously comic paintings don’t deny beauty, don’t even propose a new criterion of beauty; they acknowledge that the notion of beauty has been so debased—on the one side used as a club to beat down any attempt at discovering new meanings, on the other bricked up in a niche of irrelevance—that to invest the notion uncritically feeds pernicious attempts to embalm art altogether. Whatever Dunham is saying remains on the tip of his tongue, and for now, at least, that seems the best place for it.

Charles Hagen