Marlene Dumas: Measuring Your Own Grave
Museum of Modern Art, New York
December 14, 2008–February 16, 2009
Atrociously hip? I defy anyone to take in the works of Dutch painter Marlene Dumas at one go. We are decades past Ezra Pound’s “Make it new” and Diaghilev’s “Étonne moi,” but there’s no escaping both injunctions, to the point that an artist may invite cynicism when turning to corpses with slit throats and little girls hanging from nooses as her subjects. Dumas doesn’t dare to repel. It’s her whole shtick. Painting after painting, almost all portraits and figures, dwells on the horrific and spiritually numb. There’s a series of blobby alien babies with hydrocephalic heads and bowed legs. These look uniformly anguished and perhaps mentally defective. There are prostitutes and suicides and the afore-mentioned corpses painted on slabs in the morgue. By the time you arrive at her “Homage to Rembrandt’s Woman Pissing,” an ink drawing depicting a squatting peasant spraying a black jet of urine like a faucet, it’s hard not to become inured to so much ghastliness.
This being the Museum of Modern Art, with its guarantee of respectability, the audience doesn’t react as if they are viewing anything ghastly. People look slightly bemused. The men, if they are alone, wander closer to a painting like Fingers, which shows a woman bent over from the rear, her purplish fingers caressing swollen, dangling pudenda. Pudenda are frequent in Dumas’s oeuvre, along with other derivations from popular pornography, such as thigh-high black leather boots. In keeping with her crude subjects, her method is deliberately simplified. One painting titled Out of Edges, Out of Business, shows a forlorn woman, presumably a prostitute, who is literally out of edges, in that Dumas uses a vague wash to form faces and bodies, with no definite outline. In a room full of forty ink portraits called Models, visages consist of smeary gray rounds and ovals with eyes, nose, and mouth sketchily filled in. (The only exception, tellingly, is a snake’s head, tongue extended at the viewer.)
I turned away from Dumas’s invitation to despair, and yet I was pulled back the next day. If her point was to be atrociously hip, there would be nothing to see at second viewing. Yet there was. Dumas, a native Afrikaaner from South Africa, is a formidable figure with strong political leanings. Looking at her ferocity, one sees that she has compressed anger and compassion together. Not an easy compassion but a terse, frank refusal to look away from the tragedy of physicality. To tune into her work, one must set aside the fact that physicality is the source of joy and pleasure. For Dumas, the physical is centered on bodies being abused, tormented, and killed. Goya mined the same vein, in which torture stands for despair, despair for catharsis, catharsis for redemption. Shocking as Dumas’s depictions are (it’s hard to keep your gaze fixed on her Imaginary series, which show truncated corpses hanging from nooses that suggest children), there’s no whiff of exploitation.
What it comes down to is that all art, but especially cryptic modern art, must be appreciated intuitively. There are no safe cultural grooves for our eyes to follow. We are skating blind. Dumas cannot be appreciated as anything pretty, comforting, decorative, or even humane. She paints directly from outrage, hinting at redemption only after you abandon hope of having a soul. In that sense she is like Francis Bacon but without the Freudian undertones. In her world, Freud would be a rank optimist. Speaking from my own intuition, which no one is invited to share, there is beauty is what she does, a beauty all the more mysterious because everything the eye lights upon—subject, style, color, and form—is exactly the opposite.
Nor can one say that her morbidity is perverse. MOMA extends the view downstairs in the prints division with another exhibit of Dumas’ works on paper. If anything, these are more grim, as with fierce black strokes as blunt as a club she gives us women administering blow jobs and dangling male genitalia that, presumably, are more X-rated than female ones. (Which poses my only misgiving: shouldn’t the museum have warned parents of young children what’s in store?) For me, the ink drawings justify the paintings, in a strange way. Perhaps because black is the color of death and despair, whereas Dumas tends to wash her paintings in (ironic?) pastels of pink, salmon, and orange.
Although these pastels are almost the only colors Dumas uses, they aren’t meant to be sweet or soothing. Green might add lividity to a corpse, red-violet a wound to the neck of a suicide. When a baby’s face is lightly washed with blue, it’s hard not to think of asphyxiation. But listing this disturbing touches—Dumas has an endless repertoire of them—isn’t the same as describing the effect they make. That effect will be different from viewer to viewer. However many people will be repelled, more will find Dumas memorable and mysterious.