Marlene Dumas at the Museum of Modern Art


Marlene Dumas, Self-Portrait at Noon (2008), oil on canvas; courtesy The Museum of Modern Art

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Marlene Dumas seems a chummy sort. At the press preview for Marlene Dumas: Measuring Your Own Grave, a mid-career retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, she ingratiated herself to sundry journalists and critics. Standing at the podium, Dumas thanked museum personnel, not least of all, the exhibition organizer Cornelia Butler, and referred to MOMA Director Glenn Lowry not by name, but as “the museum guy.” The crowd laughed. Dumas’s lack of pretension was refreshing.

Which proves how wide the gulf between artist and art can be. There’s nothing chummy or unpretentious about Dumas’s paintings and drawings. They’re dour, ghostly, and self-conscious. Dry and silvery black dominates her palette. Her touch is wispy and the surfaces diaphanous, but the pictures are burdened by gravity all the same. Dumas’s stock of images adds thematic heaviness: bloodied corpses, executions, sex workers, and Snow White, clammy and naked, being ogled by the seven dwarfs. This is dank, in-your-face stuff.

Dumas was born in South Africa in 1953. After graduating from the University of Capetown, she immigrated to Amsterdam and continued her studies in art. After dabbling in Conceptualism, Dumas turned to painting in the early 1980s, emboldened by the Neo-Expressionists and, it would seem, the insouciant and stylish paintings of Francesco Clemente. Dumas subsequently gained renown, more in Europe than in the United States, for stark and ghostly pictures of children. The marketplace has been good to her: a Dumas recently fetched $3.34 million at auction.

Dumas’s Conceptualist experiments are warmed-over pastiches of collage, text, and photography keyed to a wan Minimalist impulse and a peculiarly louche feminism. The turn to painting didn’t wipe away these influences; indeed, the work’s chilly intellectualism testifies to how thoroughly they are ingrained. Expressionist tendencies notwithstanding, stylistic comparisons to Munch are misleading. It is more accurate to speak of her affinity with the likes of Gerhard Richter and Luc Tuymans: conceptual artists who happen to work with paint.

Dumas shares a nagging strain of disaffection with Richter and Tuymans. Craft is ancillary to provocative, often gross subject matter. Her approach is mannered, its brute sensuality an illusion, however loose-limbed or brushy. Relying on pornography is the giveaway; it’s the cheapest trick in the book. Graphic depictions of sex are guaranteed to elicit a reaction. Engulf them in gritty slurs of black and—presto!—they become meditations on (as the catalog essayist Richard Shiff has it) “existential irony.  Dumas’s art doesn’t possess the gravity to which it so assiduously pretends.

Dumas’s arrant pictorial calculation is dulling. Whether it’s a goggle-eyed baby, a phalanx of schoolgirls, or a terrorist, the mood is the same: a queasy mix of despair, vulnerability, and sexual anxiety. It’s the same damned and gloomy thing, over-and-over-and-over again. In this regard, Dumas resembles Francis Bacon, another sensationalist with a formula as narrow as it was effective. Unlike Bacon, Dumas is an inconsistent picture maker. When she gets off a good one, Dumas might as well be Aunt Ethel painting on Sunday afternoon—she got lucky.

There are breathtaking moments in Dumas’s art. The Shrimp (1998) is a luxurious unfurling of washy grays and ochres that coalesce into the silhouette of a nude woman arching her back. A self-portrait from the mid-1980s includes patches of color that could almost—I said, almost—be described as “Bonnardesque.” But mostly Dumas smears paint around in the hopes of achieving a certain world-weary elegance. In its own roughshod and cursory way, the work is slicker than slick. The nitpicky brush flicking of Self-Portrait at Noon (2008) is painful to behold. You want to tell her: Stop with the fussing already.

You don’t need to read interviews with Dumas to realize she’s something of a blowhard. (“The guilt of never knowing if one has done the ‘right’ thing … I see it in my own eyes.” Oh boy.) The uninventive theatricality of the compositions is bombast enough, but then there are the titles. Measuring Your Own Grave would make a heavy metal band proud. D-rection—that’s for a painting of an adolescent boy with, yes, an erection. The gridded array of one hundred-and-twelve watercolor portraits of black men and women? Black Drawings.

Political intent is obvious—much has been made of Dumas’s South African heritage and the possible effect Apartheid had on her vision—but it’s also vague enough to be, if not immoral, then notably amoral. So what does it mean for a painter who doesn’t believe in anything to paint a portrait of Osama Bin Laden (here referred to as The Pilgrim)? These are pictures bereft of contact with the real world. One image is as good as another, I guess.

© 2009 Mario Naves

Originally published in the February 2009 issue of The New Criterion.


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