Carroll Dunham at The New Museum

Carroll Dunham. Ship. New York, April 1997 - May 1999Carroll Dunham, Ship (1997-1999), synthetic polymer paint, urethan paint and pencil on linen, 10′ 1/8″ x 13′ 1/8″; courtesy The Museum of Modern Art

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Recently, while I was shuffling through newspapers readying them for the recycling bin, my 8-year-old son caught sight of The New York Times Weekend section–or, to be precise, of the reproduction of a painting by Carroll Dunham on its front cover. How could he miss it? With its sour colors, blunt lines and combative cartoons, Mr. Dunham’s picture positively blares, even on newsprint.

Pulling the paper out of the pile, my son took a good look at the piece–Fly-Agaric Men (1994)–and said, “What’s that?” I explained that it was a painting by an artist many people consider significant. He replied: “An artist? But that’s not art!”

I’m not one to wax romantic about the innocent wisdom of children, but there is something striking in the way they refuse to accept mendacity while those who should know better (i.e., adults) will gladly have the wool pulled over their eyes–at least if it’s done in the name of art.

The retrospective of Mr. Dunham’s paintings currently on view at the New Museum of Contemporary Art begins in the early 1980’s, when he engaged in a postmodernist juggling of painterly mannerisms–scribbles, smears and textures, both real and faux-and semi-abstract imagery, usually of a phallic or scatological nature.

As the exhibition progresses, methodology takes a back seat to fantasy: Mr. Dunham’s tuberous characters, no longer content to serve as pictorial markers, begin to intimate a world of their own. At first, this cosmos is beatific and psychedelic, done up in Kandinsky-like runs of color. Increasingly, it becomes darkly comedic: Armageddon is the rule, and blazing guns, squirting penises and interstellar orifices predominate.

Though these later pictures are hard to dislike–they’re silly but basically unpretentious–Mr. Dunham’s puerile gift is better suited to artifice than to fiction. His rude and rowdy universe never convinces; as a painter, Mr. Dunham is too fussy and artful, too self-conscious to get out of the way. Not surprisingly, the best pieces are the most superficial: Peanut Figure (1984), Fifth Pine (1984-85) and Transit (1986-87) eke a flimsy tension from the most discursive of means.

That’s not nothing–it sure as hell beats anything Julian Schnabel or David Salle have put to canvas–but this is one more oeuvre that doesn’t merit the hoopla it’s generating.

© 2002 Mario Naves

Originally published in the December 1, 2002 edition of The New York Observer.

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