New York

Marlene Dumas

Jack Tilton Gallery

Marlene Dumas’ work shows clear stylistic affinities with the ’80s neo-Expressionists—Francesco Clemente in particular—and some of her subject matter, like that of The Peeping Tom, 1994, echoes Eric Fischl’s, but her paintings are fueled neither by the idea of painting as self-indulgent masturbation (à la Clemente) nor as prurient voyeurism (as with Fischl). Rather, they evince an unashamed passion for contact, a commitment to the reality principle. This commitment distinguishes itself, however, from that of various forms of lately fashionable “content-driven” art. Such work disrespects history by pretending to engage topical subject matter directly, demoting art’s esthetic specificity to mere mediation, a reduction of the esthetic moment to graphic design that turns art into mere formalism.

To begin by articulating what Dumas’ paintings are not attests to the difficulty of locating them on current artistic maps. There is no reductionism in these paintings. They are true to both the notion of autonomy in the act of painting—the free disposition of colors, lines, and textures across a flat support—and to the constraint of representing some fragment of reality; furthermore, the tension between these two sets of requirements has its own urgent articulation, its counterpoints and accords. The abstraction and generalization that inevitably result from Dumas’ fluid, even arbitrary, color and brushwork do not undermine the conviction that each figure has been individually observed and transcribed. On the contrary, in Dumas’ work individuation inheres completely in the act of painting itself, with its materiality on the one hand and its internal formal coherence on the other both acting as stubborn resistances to the reproduction of predigested realities.

Many of the paintings in this exhibition were of children—in all their grime and grace, awkwardness and formality, false bravado and unself-consciousness. The child portraits included The Painter, 1994, which depicts a girl, whose hands and arms are stained up to the elbow, facing us with a challenging expression. She knows she’s been bad, and would like us to think she doesn’t care. The title suggests, of course, an identification with the artist herself. Whereas Achille Bonito Oliva projected the image of the painter as nomad to explicate artists such as Clemente, Dumas (born in South Africa but living in Holland) is, less romantically, an immigrant, and in portraying various races she depicts a culture of immigrants. The drawing for the painting includes an inscription from which the exhibition takes its title: “NOT FROM HERE.” Dumas’ paintings remind us how children are all aliens, dislocated, learning to confront or adapt to a culture they did not make and to which their interests are marginal. The painter’s task, as she gets her hands dirty, puts her, at least momentarily, in their place.

Barry Schwabsky