New York

Carroll Dunham

Metro Pictures

When critics talk about Carroll Dunham, the artist they usually mention next is Philip Guston, who, in his late style, also employed crude figuration and garish colors. But if critics invoke Guston to signal a precedent shift from abstraction to figuration, what they often fail to note is that the “Klan” paintings of the ’70s refer back to his pre-AbEx career as a young social realist. Thirty-some years later, Guston depicts himself as the man beneath the hood, turning self-righteous idealism into self-loathing realism.

This sadder-but-wiser routine is the opposite of Dunham’s move, the classic modernist reach back into childhood for the primitive. The awkward, intensely animated figures and heavy outlines recall not only the cartoon but also children’s art. Dunham explicitly refers to a drawing by his young daughter in the best painting here, Once I Land On Mars (Copied From Grace) (all works 1999), in which goofy, sightless figures erupt from the sides of a high-rise building, brandishing weapons and baring teeth. The painting plays to Dunham’s strengths: simplified forms and a stark composition that feels just right. He also has a terrific sense of color, on display here at maximum saturation—but then, this kind of painting necessarily narrows color choices.

When images veer so close to the graphic, an artist often feels obliged to insist on the painterly quality of the work, to remind us that it is a tactile object. This is Dunham’s weak spot. The Twomblyish scrawlings in most of the paintings, such as Portrait (Yellow Hair), look too mannered in the context of the hot colors and bared teeth. Dunham’s use of material texture is more successful. The Sun’s gritty surface, recalling Dubuffet’s “Texturologies,” and the globby Styrofoam balls of Orange Dwarf are less distracting, but still overstated, “extra.” The best works either embrace flatness, as in Once I Land On Mars, or more carefully incorporate matter into paint and image. In the gripping Dead (Second Version), what appears to be marble dust mixed into the gray ground—literally representing the cold, hard ground—lends the work a funereal sparkle.

Dunham himself has said that his works of the past few years look very much like drawings he did as a child. However violent and dystopian these worlds may be, there is a romanticization of childhood as a golden age of libidinous urges, uncontrolled by a superego. It’s tempting to think of this as boy art, a young lad’s shoot-’em-up fantasies. You’re not sure where to locate the grown-up artist in this cheerfully dirty, squirty worldview.

For example, who is the man pointing the gun in Suit? Thinking back to Guston’s locating himself within society, and violence within himself, you want to ask, Where is Dunham in this work? Seeing through the world around him, revealing its Lord of the Flies subtext? Or is he the man behind the suit?

Katy Siegel