Carroll Dunham

For followers of Carroll Dunham’s work, the notion that his art requires a long-term commitment from the viewer is part of the shared faith that comes with the territory. Since he first began to appear in group shows twenty years ago, Dunham’s singular use of process in the deployment of color and drawing has made him the odd man out in discussions of recent American painting. Too analytical, introspective, even principled to be lumped in with any school, he is nevertheless claimed by a range of artists who see him as a rare standard-bearer in a morass of contemporary styles that seem increasingly defined by the subordination of artistic invention to the latest wrinkle in critical mores. It seems you either begin your individualized pantheon of significant painters with Dunham or you risk leaving him out altogether, since one of his most striking characteristics as an artist is that he just doesn’t blend in with the crowd.

Dunham has methodically intensified the surface, chromatics, and figurative content of his work over the past five years, but in his most recent show the artist noticeably raised the stakes of his paintings in terms of their recognizable content, and even managed to crank up what we might call their retinal decibel level. The most salient characteristic of these paintings is that they can halt the most indifferent Chelsea gallery conversation in midsentence at twenty paces. Most of their impact is due to Dunham’s quirky handling of color: Demon Tower, 1997, one of the most riveting canvases in the show, deploys a deep canary yellow and Silly Putty pink as its main hues, then stirs in cantaloupe and brick—red figures to create a clash of tones as violent as the action depicted. Even in The Third Green Planet, 1997, where only a single color dominates, the distribution of paint densities around the white field sets up a visual dynamism that is overwhelming.

The greatest shock of Dunham’s new work, though, is the extent to which his previously latent figurative inclinations have burst from their fetters. In the past, his self-restraint in denying free reign to the erotic inclinations of his automatist approach to drawing may have seemed a bit coy, as fairly explicit phallic and vaginal symbols played hide-and-seek throughout passages of programmatic abstract color. More recently, Dunham deployed foam spheres and impasto bulges as relief elements that seemed to be scatological stand-ins for the tumultuous scenes he now embraces. Like textbook illustrations of an id on the rampage, cartoonish humanoids brandishing whips, guns, knives, and gargantuan phalluses seem to be struggling over the territory of the painting itself. They stab, shoot, whip, and piss all over each other while bodily staking claim to whatever urdomain they happen to occupy: hills, rectangular planes, and off-center, meteorlike chunks of terra incognita. In the absence of familiar cues, including the artist’s previous work, we are tugged between gut reactions of amusement, disgust, pleasure, and a more critical objectivity with respect to the bizarre narrative direction in which Dunham is taking us.

The only immediate point of reference is Philip Guston’s breakthrough series of paintings, ca. 1970, in which he definitively parted company with Abstract Expressionism’s quest for the sublime, forging an unprecedented style of figuration that in turn helped launch the return to representation for a new generation of painters. The relation between Guston’s hooded figures, puffing cigars as they cruise in their ersatz cars, and Dunham’s bellowing warmongers is not one of attitude so much as subversive intent: both use the banality of cartoons to strip away the civilized veneer of art in order to enact dark truths about the human condition. In Wanderer, 1997, and Killer, 1997, Dunham has pushed the comparison with Guston a step further by presenting single, iconic figures minus their bleak surroundings. With simplified heads that reveal only ravaged skin and aggressively bared teeth, these characters appear to be acting out compulsive myths of American identity: aimless drifting paired with an instinct to kill.

If these canvases were merely the most powerful to date from one of the most consistently inventive painters in New York, there would be ample reason to pay attention. In fact, when one considers the current stalemate in American figuration, between the genre-ridden indulgences of John Currin or Elizabeth Peyton, and the decorative ironies of Lari Pittman or Sue Williams, we can afford to borrow another cliche from the dustbin of American history and assure ourselves that, just like the US Cavalry, Dunham’s most radical, challenging, and, in the end, satisfying paintings have arrived in the nick of time.

Dan Cameron is senior curator at the New Museum.