Marlene Dumas

Painting and photography keep rubbing up against each other, getting all hot and bothered. A cold-eyed artist like Gerhard Richter just likes to watch, but a more physically and emotionally demonstrative one like Marlene Dumas keeps wanting to join in. Richter’s paintings, which treat a portrait, a landscape, or an abstraction as equivalent, introject the camera’s horrific indifference to any subject. Dumas’s obses-sive return to the human face and figure make her a sort of anti-Richter. She understands that to the model, the camera’s indifference is no more absolute than a psychoanalyst’s silence is to the patient: Both are flagrant invitations to the melodrama of transference. And we are all models, sooner or later. Or as Dumas describes our yearning relationship with the mechanical eye in the title of a 1997 painting, a group portrait of eight haughty demoiselles stripped down to their frilly white underwear, We Were All in Love with the Cyclops.

When Dumas uses pornographic imagery, she shows sexualized images of individuals but not people engaged in sexual contact. The camera is lover enough. Every pose, every gesture—everything—in Dumas’s imagery has occurred in order to end up in a photograph. Whether she’s working from a found image or one of her own is irrelevant. And except in a few cases where the subject is familiar from the media (Mae West, Madonna), there’s no way to know. The fact is, almost everyone knows how to model for the camera. We’re brought up on it from childhood; the camera mediates the desire to be seen even more than the desire to see.

But, for this camera-formed imagery to become painting, the artist must have found a way to divert the pose from its fantasized destination in the photograph, literally to pervert it—and after it has arrived there. That’s what Dumas means when she writes that she “uses secondhand images and firsthand emotions.” What she presents has nothing to do with recapturing the impulse that animated the person who once posed for somebody’s camera. Rather, she gives the image a further twist away from that origin by employing neither the emotion connected to the model’s wanting to be looked at, nor the one linked to the viewer’s wanting to look—instead, it is a specifically painterly emotion in which looking and being looked at are inseparable, and showing one’s own gaze is to make oneself visible. So these paintings conjure sensations that are not exactly the same as the ones provided by their imagery alone; there is something added, or at any rate changed, in the way the image inheres in Dumas’s altogether unrestrained way with paint—a gesture at once caressing and aggressive. What so many epigones of Richter fail to realize is that the conflicted relation that is photography/painting is not engaged sim-ply by the able transcription of a photograph into paint. Far from it: As Dumas shows—and she is not alone in this, of course—their real relation only becomes manifest in painting’s resistance to that transcription, or in the image’s resistance to its embodiment in paint, that is, in the evidence of the failed desire of photography to be painted, of painting to be photographic.

In their paintings’ blatant demand for attention, however, it may turn out that Dumas is not so far from Richter after all—at least to the extent that, when questioned about whether his “objectification of the painting process” implied a critique, his response was that it was done to make the paintings “get louder; they can’t be overlooked so easily.” Dumas employs a dif-ferent tactic to achieve a similar end: If there is anything that cannot be overlooked so easily, it is, for instance, the picture of a woman bending over, her naked ass thrust toward your face as she spreads her pussy lips with her fingers; unless it is the picture of a guy with an enormous cock, a violent red light reflecting on it, as he masturbates while also fingering his own butthole (Fingers and 10 inch, both 1999). Dumas explains, “I use all the cheap tricks of attracting attention: eyes looking at you, sexual parts exposed or deliberately covered. The primitive pull of recognition. The image as prostitute. You are forced to say yes or no.”

I don’t usually talk dirty in my writing, but around Dumas’s recent paintings it’s hard to avoid. I keep saying yes. Although her imagery has come to focus on pornography only recently, this survey of the last eight years of her work shows that the difference is merely one of degree. For her, relations between person and camera have always been carnal. Still, in making her paintings more seductive, she has also made them harsher. They put me in mind of an observation made by the philosopher Paul Feyerabend after witnessing Muhammad Ali in the ring: “He is so graceful and when he knocks an opponent to the ground it looks as if he had just stroked his cheek with affection.”

Barry Schwabsky, a frequent contributor to Artforum, is the author of The Widening Circle: Consequences of Modernism in Contemporary Art.