Marlene Dumas

Isabella Kacprzak

Marlene Dumas’ “written drawings” refer mainly to existential situations involving sex, death, love, the child, man, racism, fear, and woman as painter. This show is a turbulent journal exposing the artist’s most personal concerns. At the same time, Dumas also insists on the significance and justification of defending intimacy, and on the artist’s need for self-observation, exploration, and analysis of the psyche.

I am not looking at this exhibition as a whole. It’s the old story of how isolating a work of art increases its relevance, favoring a mild kind of terrorism, a humanist slant. It’s an irritating strategy, yes, but it’s meant to be, because it was just Dumas’ irritating qualities that kept driving me to follow this woman’s path. Her provocational strategy works because it’s not heavy-handed but thoughtful and bold, dealing directly with questions of how her work affects the public. For instance, she does not avoid the inelegant but significant issues of titles and headings. She titles each of her works and projects, which I find very accommodating and sensible; this typically irritates many, but Dumas obviously enjoys the contradictions and barbs and a grandiose, womanish showiness expressed in her commentaries on anything and everything. From this perspective, “Ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies” is a continuation of her 1987 show, “The Private versus the Public.” Various genres Dumas has worked with over the years reappear too: the group portrait (schoolchildren); an oil painting, done from photos; semisymbolic thematic paintings like Little Red Riding Hood, 1985–91 (a kind of crude interpretation of Salvador Dalí’s Girl Standing at the Window, 1925); a small James Ensor––like oil, Flower People, 1991–92; ink drawings on the theme of woman and her profession; a series entitled “The Muses,” 1991, all of them portraits with the exception of the last one, in which the muse bares her breasts.

This show is a colossal, complex, truly prodigal affair in every respect, and for that very reason open in many directions—perhaps in more than she can handle. The “Black Drawings,” 1991–92, a work in 112 parts, notebook-size ink portraits of blacks, did disturb me. The problem for me was that, despite individualized treatment, I couldn’t see the portraits as artistic versions of photographs from old, colonial ethnographic works that claim to explain racial/racist classification systems. I did see the artist’s perhaps intentional critique of the white perspective and of the controversy surrounding the objectification of the Other. But we can only understand this point if we already know the probable explanation to begin with, and we are left with a sense of premature involvement. We arrive at a trap of privacy; we feed on our own sense of personal involvement, and get stuck in confusion. This is a difficult response filled with misery—but still it is extremely effective wherever Dumas studies it and, most clearly of all, in her small canvases.

Jutta Koether

Translated from the German by Leslie Strickland.