MoMA Monday Nights gave me the opportunity to pop in after work and spend some time at their retrospective of South African painter Marlene Dumas, entitled Measuring Your Own Grave. Reviews can be good or bad, or sometimes scathing. Although Dumas’s works left a strong impression on me, I find it difficult to articulate my thoughts, good or bad. Why is her work so difficult to talk about?
Her figurative paintings focus on bodies in space: women, children, corpses, groups. In blueish hues, she suggests, sometimes quite beautifully, a face as strongly as if you had seen it in a dream. Yet the quality is contradicted by the eyes on canvas meeting yours. They are unreadable and unhappy. From explicit sexual poses to prone corpses, the subjects attempt a gritty realism that wars with the dreamlike style, especially in the her water-based works on paper. The subject challenges it’s own subject-hood through its gaze; the subject matter challenges the style and medium. Is it any wonder I find her work challenging to discuss?
Her works, which are so strong and accomplished, struggle with meaning. Except for her more political/sexual works, which are too literal and graceless for my taste, Dumas paints people whose gendered identity or ethnicity comes forward more than their individuality. As a South African, Dumas’s work offers a perspective on apartheid. As a woman painting traditionally feminine subjects of women and children, the artist provides yet another source of conflict by presenting her subjects through a traditionally male lens, both historically and sexually. The manner in which she paints forestalls her making a statement, and these people become ghost or dream people instead of portraits or symbols of social ideas.
Dumas’s people reminded me of Chagall’s, in that they are not grounded to any reality, take on shimmering skin colors, and in their simplified contours seem representative of humanity. Puzzling out both artists’ works is more imaginative than logical.
Full of verve without joy, her thinly painted, fragmented style and hallucinatory colors, Dumas’s figures toe a borderline of real and imagined that won’t quite let the viewer make comfortable assumptions, and this disquieting quality illuminates her work with a chill beauty. On view at MoMA through February 16, this accomplished exhibition then moves to The Menil Collection, Houston, Texas, from March 26 to June 21.