New York

Marlene Dumas, She speaks, 2015–16, ink and metallic acrylic on paper, 11 1⁄8 × 9 1⁄4". From the series “Venus & Adonis,” 2015–16.

Marlene Dumas, She speaks, 2015–16, ink and metallic acrylic on paper, 11 1⁄8 × 9 1⁄4". From the series “Venus & Adonis,” 2015–16.

Marlene Dumas

There was a time in the late sixteenth century when fears of the plague forced theaters all across London to close their doors until the illness passed. This posed something of an employment problem for Shakespeare. To continue working, he turned to poetry. “Venus and Adonis,” a narrative poem from 1593, and perhaps his first published work, took a brief episode from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and transformed it into a rollicking, ten-thousand-word disputation on the natures of love and lust. In Shakespeare’s text, Venus, the goddess of love, falls for the alluring young hunter Adonis, who couldn’t care less for her overtures: He finds her seductions tedious and distasteful. At one point, he rejects her so forcefully that she faints. Afraid that he’s inadvertently killed her, Adonis leans down to caress her face, at which point Venus takes full advantage. But she can’t keep him there forever, and Adonis takes his leave to prepare for the next day’s hunt. Haunted by visions, Venus is sure that he’ll be killed by a wild boar. And, of course, when morning comes, she discovers she was right and throws herself upon his bloodied, lifeless body. A flower as beautiful as he was suddenly blooms from the ground beneath him. Venus, utterly drained, is carried away by doves to seclude herself from the world.

Marlene Dumas’s latest exhibition, “Myths and Mortals,” filled three rooms with paintings, many of them large and garish, from Spring, 2017, depicting a masturbating figure, to Teeth, 2018, which portrays a lipstick-smeared grimace. But the most powerful part of the show was a tight display of thirty-three diminutive works on paper, all of them subtly conspiring to tell this mythical tale. Every twist and turn of Shakespeare’s poem is conveyed in a series of gestural smudges and washes of ink. Here, Dumas’s work is marked by vulnerability, nuance, and an extreme sensitivity to the erotic and combative aspects of the text. The series “Venus & Adonis,” 2015–16, begins with a pool of ink in the shape of Venus’s mouth titled She speaks, and then moves through the goddess’s many passionate moods. In Venus insists, she is aggressive and bold, her angular limbs bent like a grasshopper’s, a shock of orange around her head, as she pins Adonis to the ground. In Venus pleads, she looks as if she has been literally watered down: Rendered in lines of diluted ink, her body appears to droop. In Venus forces, a turbulent cloud rolls into the background as she wrestles Adonis into an awkward embrace. The artist takes a clear side in Shakespeare’s argument, allying herself with the camp of Venus.

It is too common to think of Dumas as a portraitist of wild children and shattered women. Like Venus in the eyes of Adonis, she is perceived erroneously. Her strength lies not in the names or nouns of her titles but in their verbs—not in capturing singular subjects or objects, but in expressing the anguish of actions taken at great cost or with a struggle. Her imagination is both historical and literary in scope, which, returning to the central pairing of the exhibition at hand, gives her “Myths” an edge over her “Mortals,” who are portrayed in the aforementioned garish paintings and whose subjects and circumstances are closer to the minutiae of our own lives. “I haven’t outgrown my tendencies towards uneasiness, anger, aggression, deep and cheap horror, falling in and out of love,” notes Dumas, a prodigious writer herself, in a 1994 poem titled “Lovesick.” “But there has to be a way to make an art about being in love. An art that is erotic, sexy, tender, and filled with a darkness that is awesome, but not sick.”

––Kaelen Wilson-Goldie