Los Angeles

Marlene Dumas

WHILE MARLENE DUMAS enjoys international renown, opportunities to see her oeuvre in its full breadth and depth in the United States have been scarce. Over the course of her thirty-year career, the South Africa–born, Amsterdam-based artist has had a number of solo exhibitions here, but her work has never been presented comprehensively. This large midcareer survey, organized by Cornelia Butler and on view this past summer at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, was thus both welcome and arguably overdue. Titled “Measuring Your Own Grave,” the exhibition assembled more than one hundred of Dumas’s paintings and works on paper and featured numerous pieces seen Stateside for the first time. What emerges is not so much a sense of discovery or development, however, as the artist’s enduring engagement with a select set of concerns: the socially constructed body, the photographic gaze in painting, and the interplay between the personal and the historical. These critical investigations seem especially timely, given the resurgent popularity of representational painting (and the lack of serious attendant criticism). Skillfully navigating between the two poles of contemporary painting—an analytic endgame of “painting is dead/long live painting,” on the one hand, and an amnesiac “anything goes” expressionism on the other—Dumas embraces the emotive potential of her materials while dealing with vital and urgent subjects.

The exhibition was organized largely thematically rather than chronologically, and the first gallery was dominated by eleven colorful and oversize paintings of photographically based portraits, mostly of the artist’s friends and family. The roughly four-by-three-and-a-half- foot canvases were centered well above eye level in the high, vaulted space; the main wall was double hung. This unconventional installation, one of the artist’s hallmarks, animated the space in unexpected ways. The paintings seemed less like objects and more like personalities, with the giant heads’ unblinking eyes creating an impressively confrontational effect: These are the great-grandchildren of Manet’s Olympia. Yet the paintings’ main impact comes less from the implied dialogue the faces solicit than from the artist’s remarkable use of color. The chalky violets of The White Disease, 1985, and fiery crimsons of Jule–die Vrou, 1985, prove more affecting than the facial expressions they render. It is not the pouty lips and sultry eyes that hold our attention so much as the distinctive colors. Indeed, throughout her work Dumas practices a kind of updated, old-world subjectivism. Just as James Ensor or Edvard Munch broke from an ossified realist tradition at the end of the nineteenth century, pursuing resolutely personal projects through expressive materiality and bold, nonnaturalistic colors, so Dumas rejects what seems to be the current academicism in painting, the blank transcription of photographs onto canvas. Rather than staying too close to her photographic source images, Dumas exploits the traditionally affective codes of painting, including high-pitched color, fluid brushwork, and distorted rendering—and she is masterful at all three.

This exploration of painting and affect was intensified after the knockout first room, when Dumas began to hit a series of hot-button topics. Children hanging from nooses, all manner of private parts, and investigations of race abounded. (Even Osama bin Laden made an appearance, in a 2006 canvas titled The Pilgrim.) Dumas’s great critical and popular success has arguably been amplified by her engagement with such putatively scandalous subjects—as well as with her own biography. After all, the hermeneutic possibilities of the story of a woman raised in apartheid South Africa tackling issues of race in her art are almost irresistible (if essentializing). But while the organization of the exhibition into categories like “the dead,” “pregnant women,” and “the female nude,” each in a different room, may encourage narrowly iconographic interpretation, the artist herself seems to bristle at such readings. In a well-known anecdote (cited in art historian Richard Shiff’s catalogue essay), Dumas was asked about the age of a child depicted in one of her canvases; the artist responded: “It’s not a child, it’s a painting.” Such conflation of what her paintings represent and what they are has consistently characterized the artist’s reception—but, following the artist’s lead, we should be wary of going too far in the content-driven analyses focused on her biography and iconography. Ultimately, “Measuring Your Own Grave” shows that Dumas is most compelling when her subject matter is read through the form she gives it, rather than for its ostensible topics alone.

The limit case for an interpretative framework at the intersection of “subject” and “object” surely must be Fingers, 1999, one of the masterworks in the show. A diminutive sixteen by twenty inches, the canvas is based on a pornographic photograph in which a woman presents herself for the camera’s delectation. With the model’s back turned to us, her titular fingers spreading her privates, one would expect the image to be graphic. Yet the canvas crackles with chromatic electricity and painterly incident, evidencing Dumas’s delight in the play between the distancing objectification of the pornographic picture and the intimacy of the painting process. It is as if, through a kind of radical materialism, the artist seeks to restore a palpable physicality to the body that the camera has drained. Such investigations characterize many of Dumas’s nudes, in which she explores the ways both people and paintings present themselves as objects to be looked at. In Fingers, Dumas provocatively gets the best of both worlds, the work seems to be as much about painting as about sex. The pair of opaque blue strokes describing both the woman’s shoulder and the negative space to her left are quick and dazzlingly assured. There is a vast array of color application, from the casually mopped purple-gray hair and calligraphic black contours of the fingers to the solvent-heavy rag rubbing that delimits the figure’s rump and legs. The colors themselves are disquietingly non-naturalistic, almost campy, especially where the artist uses the brightest colors in the work—turquoise and fuchsia—to render shadow. Here, as with other successful paintings in the show (including TV Trance, 1987, and Dead Man, 1988), the size of the mark with regard to the canvas is perfect: The scalar relationship between part and whole generates a remarkable ambiguity between the brushstroke’s descriptive function and its material abstraction.

Such tensions between form and subject are heightened in Dumas’s figurative drawings—the surfaces of which the artist has evocatively called “skinlike”—and Butler rightly highlighted this aspect of the artist’s production by dedicating the central rooms of the exhibition to works on paper. Like the paintings, these figures and portraits are based on photographs either from mass media or the artist’s own archived snapshots. Yet they appear more quickly executed than the oils, retaining a delightful fluidity that stems from the process by which they are made. Dumas begins the drawings by sketching forms in broad strokes with a Chinese brush, pouring ink onto the heavyweight watercolor paper and then cradling and rocking the resulting pools to “draw” with gravity. Among the drawings shown, two sets stood out: “Models,” 1994, a gallery of ninety-five large sheets with female faces (and one snake head), and “Black Drawings,” 1991–92, a similar but smaller-size collection of dark-skinned men. Each image appears to be based on a distinct photograph; but in their sheer accumulation, hung unframed in a grid on the wall, the drawings begin to lose their individuality. The series’ iterative form and gridded presentation, then, subvert physiognomic typology—the idea that one might “know” character through the surface appearance of a face—and thereby upend the administrative functions (criminal records, racial classification) for which such systems have historically been used. This effect is augmented by the loose brushwork and chance poolings of ink, both of which further undermine the aesthetic of forensic likeness or the function of individual identification.

The exhibition’s central rooms also included drawings and sketchbooks from the 1960s and ’70s that attest to Dumas’s early interest in Conceptual art. If the artist had previously dabbled in information-driven works—Don’t Talk to Strangers, 1977, a collage of epistolary salutations and closings, was one example included here—the gridded arrangement of the later “typological” drawings appears the sole remnant of this Conceptualist bent. To privilege these incidences in her work, however, is to risk missing the qualitative difference in her engagement with painting from that of her (mostly American) contemporaries in the ’80s. Indeed, Dumas’s oeuvre as a whole evinces a swerve away from the central debates around painting in “advanced” art during the early years of her career, most of which focused on a critique of authorship. (This may, in fact, partially account for Dumas’s delayed reception in the States, perhaps hindered by the polemics surrounding neo-expressionist painting and the whiff of romanticism in her work.) Rather than succumb to the late-modernist stalemate between staged expressionism and deadpan appropriation, Dumas took a bit of each, inflecting the personal through the cultural, and choosing to borrow promiscuously from mass media sources, making little distinction in her work between subjects she knows from lived experience and those she “knows” through pictures.

The show ended on a note of high intensity with the debut of a single new painting from this year. The small canvas depicts the head of a female corpse in profile. Rendered in pasty white gestural brush marks, the painted image possesses a tenderness and immediacy surely absent from the forensic source photograph. The drained, blotchy face has a haunting quality seen in many of Dumas’s portraits; it is one of the most intense paintings of decaying flesh in recent memory. Upon noting the title, Dead Marilyn, we recognize with some incredulity that the work is a portrait of Marilyn Monroe. What faces reveal and what they hide—and the complex interchange between public and private selves—thus hangs in the balance. Surely, much of what we read into the canvas is a function of the sensationalism of the source image. Yet Dumas introduces new layers of meaning and affect in her translation of the image into paint: The work becomes a meditation on portraiture and abstraction, photography and painting, and personal and public identity. Few things elicit a voyeuristic gaze more than a celebrity corpse—it is its own pornography—and in painting such a spectacular image, Dumas risks ceding her own artistic contribution to the subject matter. It is the kind of risk, however, that she willingly takes. “Measuring Your Own Grave” convincingly argues that we should afford the artist this latitude—for after the aura of the movie icon has faded from collective memory, it is what Dumas did with the photograph that will remain.

Travels to the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Dec. 14, 2008– Feb. 16, 2009; Menil Collection, Houston, Mar. 26–June 21, 2009.

Jordan Kantor is an artist and associate professor of painting and humanities at California College of the Arts in San Francisco.