NEW MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART | February 21 - June 2, 2002
The drawings in the current retrospective of works on paper by the Amsterdam-based, white South African artist Marlene Dumas offer a fine example of art as a translation of the personal into a strong visual language of the familiar and the ordinary. Dumas is not striving for universal truth—in fact I’m pretty sure she would claim there is no such thing. But by combining the intimacy of the human everyday with the patently false/fake images of popular culture, Dumas’s drawings offer surprisingly honest yet knowingly ironic glimpses into a questioning of identity and shared humanity.
Born in South Africa, Dumas lives and works in Amsterdam, where she moved in 1975, at the age of 23, to “see American art.” She has exhibited internationally for over 20 years, mostly in Europe and South Africa. Name No Names was organized by the Centre Pompidou in Paris. The exhibition is ostensibly organized chronologically, and the 80 works on paper included in the exhibition offer a good overview of Dumas’s career. However, each gallery clearly contains a thematic thread that loosely ties the works together and sometimes disrupts the drawings’ linear arrangement. The themes tend towards the “big issues” of the last 30 years: gender, sexuality, race, religion, etc. It’s an irritating litany to be sure, but Dumas turns these issues into art with the delicate, watery lines of her ink washes, a sly, sarcastic sense of humor, and a complicated sense of irony.
At the entrance to the exhibition hangs “Jesus Serene” (1994), a grid of 21 images of Jesus. These life-sized portraits depict only faces, in one instance only a silhouette, in ink washes and watercolor. Although each face contains facial characteristics associated with renderings of Jesus in medieval painting and sculpture—long face and nose, beard, thin, long hair, sad eyes—the faces look nothing alike. Dumas’s Jesuses are black and white, ancient and modern, transparent and opaque, holy and street-wise. The diverse array of peaceful, contemplative visages rendered with liquid marks suggest serenity in multiplicity, and a spirituality derived from projections of self onto religious iconography. In light of recent events in American religious life, “Jesus Serene” resonates with the ever increasing tangle of morals and spirituality in a contemporary culture that locates salvation in sex.
In a video of the artist at work displayed on the museum’s mezzanine balcony, she discusses her work, painting from found images, ripped from magazines, stolen from art history books, or snapped herself. As she talks about her work, Dumas transforms these “appropriated” images with expressionistic brushstrokes and skillful manipulation of ink, and the complete erasure of background and context, so that the finished product looks more like Francis Bacon than Gerhard Richter, the photo-based artist of the moment. In “Barbie, The Original,” a 1997 portrait of the doll, the familiar features of the doll are rendered in dark black ink with her signature blue eye shadow, giving the light plastic doll a surprising substance and expressive aspect.
The title of the exhibition offers a perfect example of Dumas’s complicated, subtle, and extremely competent use of language, and her expert grasp of multiple meanings. The title of an ominous drawing from 2001, “Name No Names” serves as an injunction against political betrayals in South Africa. As a title for the entire show, Name No Names seems to point more to the elusive qualities of identity, the absence of a name in order to make sense of emotion and the complicated relationships within the artist’s personal reality. Dumas’s refusal of identity as a fixed notion is reflected in the watery, amoebic quality of her faces and figures making the identity of the subject impossible to pin down. Each picture offers a complete image, and yet the bleeds and the blurs suggest that both the gesture of the pose, and the gesture of the artist’s hand is disappearing, and morphing into something else on the surface of the drawing.
In “Labelled” (1998), a female nude painted in soft pink and green, with large, pendular breasts and broad hips stares out of blurry, almost closed eyes. She appears to be raising her head, flipping her hair which is a splatter of pale green watercolor. There is no question that this is a woman, but her body is so light as a representation, that is seeps into the paper, and threatens to disappear under our gaze. “Labelled” is a stunning example of Dumas’s increasing abstraction and simplification of surfaces.
In the last gallery, mostly consisting of work from the late ’90s, the scale of the work increases, while the forms are simplified, almost abstract, and colorful. These contemporary works are like paintings on paper, full of shimmering nudes that appear to slide around on the surface of the paper. Dumas drew the imagery for this body of work from photographs of strippers she took herself in Amsterdam, and found images of porn stars and sex symbols. Instead of the soft porn, soft focus distortion of Lisa Yuskavage’s bimbos, images like “Dorothy D-lite” (1998) are more hardcore, and feel more real, even while the sense of figuration recedes. “Under the Volcano (not death and the girl, but death in the girl)” (1998) is as vulgar and pornographic as any David Salle painting, and more disturbingly erotic. The lower two-thirds of the four foot high torn sheet of paper are filled with a dark, purplish red ink which from the substance of a female figure, seen from behind, bending over, exposing both her red vulva and her skeleton-like visage with dark purple circles for eyes and lips of thick bands of ink. Such nasty smiles on the lips of porn stars bent over and exposed read like a sarcastic comment located between the strong statements of feminist artists like Barbara Kruger and the victimized little girls made popular recently by Marlene McCarty and Rita Ackermann.
Dumas plays with scale and cropping in the stunning “Male Nipples” (1998). This horizontal image depicts a left shoulder, neck, upper arm, and not-especially-well-defined pectorals, including nipples, in a soft pinkish green glittering ink. It is a loving, psychological portrait of flesh, probably taken from pornography, and yet transformed by its rendering in ink into a delicate skin (although the sparkling ink suggests the flashing lights and artifice of the entertainment industry).
Certainly Dumas’s work could be criticized for over-earnestness, for its diaristic quality and its seemingly trite preoccupation with “identity” in our post-postmodern era. The small, dark drawings from the ’80s dealing with misogyny in the art world are sharp and funny, but less visually interesting than the more polished later work. However the artist’s exactingly specific record of moments and emotions allow her to refuse and transcend the stifling categories of identity. As works on paper, often torn and buckling from water stains, Dumas’s work is humble and raw at a moment when most paintings are only slick surfaces and witty imagery. As Johanna Burton notes in her excellent text accompanying the exhibition, Dumas’s images “are sexy in a raw, dirty kind of way—vaguely pathetic, sometimes embarrassing, often vicious, and always disconcertingly familiar.” If it is embarrassing for art to be so open, I don’t mind turning red.