New York

Marlene Dumas

There is an air of mournful intimacy to Marlene Dumas’s paintings, a sort of muted pathos. The thinly painted figures in this recent exhibition, “Against the Wall,” have a miragelike appearance appropriate to the emotional desert in which they exist. Many of the images are derived from photographs documenting the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Dumas’s handling serves to subjectify the photographically objectified figures, to make the prosaic images quasi-poetic, or at least to aestheticize them. In this regard, the presence of a photograph at the emotional and almost literal center of The Mother, 2009, is noteworthy. (The image depicts an isolated Palestinian woman contemplating a photograph of her dead son while squatting on the edge of a grave.) Dumas implies that photography and painting, at odds in modernity—photography supposedly being more craft than art, and unable to achieve the aesthetic resonance of painting—have converged in postmodern representation. Both are necessary to complete the meaning of a work: Painting needs the richness of information about the world available through photography, and photography has to be informed with subjectivity to be artistically credible. “Paintings exist as the traces of their maker,” Dumas has said, and it is through this subjective trace, conveying the fact that the artist is “intimately involved with [her socially objective] subject matter,” that art reaches the subjectivity of the spectator, overcoming the neutrality of the photograph, however newsworthy and socially sensational, even historically memorable, it may be.

That the photograph seems to take a neutral attitude to the momentary event while the painting imprints it on our minds seems the point of Dumas’s Mindblocks, 2009, a painting of large stones apparently used as roadblocks. Mindblocks is the most overtly abstract—and poetic—painting in the series. The structure that these blocks make up seems to be breaking down—it is only two rows high, with an opening in the center showing a road and the blue sky beyond, perhaps symbolizing hope. Wall Wailing and Wall Weeping, both 2009, meanwhile, are derived from an image accompanying a 1990 article in Time magazine, carrying the caption “Israelis searching Arab prisoners in captured section of Jerusalem, 1967.” Like the titles, the way in which the Arab prisoners stand facing the wall as they are searched evokes the Wailing Wall—and is echoed in the image of Orthodox Jews shown praying in front of the Israeli “security fence” in another painting here, The Wall, 2009. The conflation—ironic confusion?—of Arab prisoners and Jewish worshippers by way of their postures and their similar black-and-white clothing is here an ingenious subtext. The rhythmic repetition of the figures also minimizes their social and political difference and suggests an inner relationship. They may be antagonists, but they are peculiarly alike. (The security fence also features in Under Construction, 2009, and Figure in a Landscape, 2010. Fences may not make good neighbors, as they do in Robert Frost’s poem, but they are not implacable boundaries, for they signal a kind of togetherness, however perversely.)

But Dumas’s sympathies are clearly with the Palestinians, and her intimate involvement with her subject matter is thus incomplete. Her Arab prisoners are bigger and stronger than her Orthodox Jews, who lack a comparable density of presence. The artist’s brushwork in these pictures is also simplistic; it is only superficially lively, and her black, white, and gray are relatively inert. Her figures fall flat, becoming tepidly animated modernist planes. While Dumas is often celebrated for her engagement with controversial issues of the day, I think she’s much more flamboyantly expressive, poetically evocative, and free-spirited
when she steers clear of morals and politics and presents nature in all its colorful glory, as she does in Charity, 2010; The Grapes of Plenty, 2009; and The Grapes of Wrath, 2009, where nature remains beautiful, if desiccated; and perhaps above all in Olive Tree, 2010, with its flourishing green. As allegorical as these paintings are, they indicate that Eros remains alive in Dumas, however more inclined she may be to celebrate Thanatos, or to consider it more socially real.

Donald Kuspit