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Marlene Dumas

Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA

Marlene Dumas, Death of the Author, 2003. Oil on canvas.

Marlene Dumas, Death of the Author, 2003. Oil on canvas.

In Marlene Dumas’ sketchbooks from the early 1970s, three body parts – a wrinkled belly, a woman’s genitals and an unidentified crevice – sit framed and shaded in various tones of blue and violet. With the privilege of hindsight, these humble studies appear as auguries of an entire oeuvre to come, one that – even as it wends through different media, methods, affects and dimensions – remains singularly wedded to the human form: fragmented and whole, familiar and peculiar, the source of life and the measure of a (framed) grave. The exhibition takes its title from Dumas’ canvas Measuring Your Own Grave (2003), in which an inclined and foreshortened figure stretches her (or his?) arms to the edges of the painting. In addition to a formal evocation of the canvas’ underlying support, the gesture perhaps literalizes Protagoras’ dictum about man as the measure of all things, while it also unleashes a morbid pun on the Vitruvian man and an idealist aesthetics of the body.

If the body forms the unswerving axis of Dumas’ work, its disposition and arrangement has shifted greatly over nearly four decades of works in oil, acrylic and watercolour. Her figures – real and imagined, anonymous and iconic – range in embodiment from matte flatness to whorls of impasto, from nubile, wispy stains, to more rough-hewn anatomies set against a spare décor. The spareness of that imagery belies the weight of several millennia of figurative painting. But rather than disavow the spectre of precedent, Dumas addresses it with a good dose of wry humour not least in her titles – Pregnant Image (1988–90), Warhol’s Child (1989–91), Death of the Author (2003). Other titles obliquely reference the abstraction her practice has long held at bay – Colorfields (1997), Ryman’s Brides (1997), Magdalena (Newman’s Zip) (1995).

Still, the genealogy of Dumas’ bodies derives not simply from the history of painting, but from an ever-expanding image bank. Like Gerhard Richter and Leon Golub before her, Dumas frequently bases her images upon photographic sources, though the finished canvases often owe their photographic forbears little more than a compositional framework, or else a single detail, a ‘punctum’, which swells into a subject of its own. ‘Porn+Beauty+Gay+Eros’ reads the spine of one of Dumas’ binders of source imagery (reproduced in the catalogue), underscoring the far-flung origins of what in her work often appears as a rather spartan, even self-effacing, image.

Dumas’ achievement as a contemporary painter perhaps lies in her quirky deployment of colour. Long after Paul Gauguin, Edvard Munch, and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, and not so long after Georg Baselitz and Enzo Cucchi, Dumas manages to make figurative painting strange again. There is a provocative unease to the way paint sits on the surface of her canvases. Subtle disjunctions between form and colour, or between colours themselves, keep the figure from ever appearing at home in its own skin: a child’s belly swollen slate blue (The Painter, 1994); a teenager’s tumescent member rising into a bawdy purple (D-rection, 1999); the artist’s own face and fingers haunted by the nimbus of her electric orange hair (Evil is Banal, 1984). Rather than visual gambits, these seem the fruit of a genuine existential predicament, threaded taut between pleasure and apprehension. Dumas’ awkward adolescents – Shy Girl (1991), Helena 2001 nr.2 (2001) and Helena nr. 3 (2002) – necessarily stir up the ghosts of Munch or Balthus. But they also evoke a contemporary, female self-consciousness, not unlike Rineke Dijkstra’s photographic portraits.

The latent eroticism of these pictures, becomes frankly pornographic in a selection of works clustered together in one room; a sexual intensity that bleeds, in the following rooms, into evocations of political violence. The exhibition revealed Dumas as effortlessly moving between these registers, often revealing their insidious rapport. So, too, does her work shift smoothly between explorations of colour as such, and of colour as charged with racial meaning. But are these shifts too smooth, even glib? If her status as a woman lends her a purchase on certain figurations of femininity, what of her status as a white South African painting (black) Africans, or a woman painting adolescent Adonises? Answers to that end are, of course, available in the exhibition’s catalogue (which, despite its rigorous scholarship, is manic and disorganized, tackling the artist’s entire oeuvre rather than coherently fleshing out this particular exhibition). Dumas’ politics are in the right place. It is, in many respects, the subtlety of her works’ ideological encodings that lends them an admirable clout.

Yet the installation of 70 paintings and 35 drawings on two separate floors felt arbitrary not simply in its bifurcation, but in some of its allotments: the social stakes of Dumas’ engagements with race and gender – and, often, their interrelationship, as in Male Beauty (2002) – seem to have been almost dispensed with in the show’s hanging. Rather than drawn out, they appeared buried amidst the cross purposes of formal display. Large-scale oil paintings rightly enjoyed the spacious expanse of upper galleries, but a range of paintings, works on paper, and early work in mixed media felt stuffed into two rooms on the third floor (including a South African-themed room), somewhere between cosy and sepulchral, perhaps taking too literally Dumas’ likening of the canvas to a grave.

Ara H. Merjian is Associate Professor of Italian Studies at New York University, USA, where he is an affiliate of the Institute of Fine Arts and Department of Art History.

Issue 122

First published in Issue 122

April 2009
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