Review: Marlene Dumas at MoMA

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.

7 thoughts on “Review: Marlene Dumas at MoMA

  1. “What do you think of her work? Why does she create such ambivalence?”

    I went to the MoMA show not having paid much attention to Dumas over the years and found out how real her work is. It’s not another rehashing and revival of figurative expressionism. That’s where the particularly negative review I had read (I think the same one you referred to?) went wrong. The unflattering comparisons to past artists of that style made by the critic I’m thinking of were irrelevant.

    So, what is she up to?

    In many of the paintings, the subjects meet our gaze. When that happens, Dumas is dealing with images of humans that look back at us with intensity and resistance. The reference is maybe Manet’s Olympia, to some degree, but with Dumas, it’s not just a nominally challenging or provocative stare, but an active, palpable subjectivity and counter-gaze. They are looking at us. They are looking with great intensity, and they don’t want to be looked at. It’s an unequal power relationship. They are painted from photographed subjects, often subjects both implicitly and explicitly on display– posed, made vulnerable, captured. An occasion when they don’t look back at us is when they are corpses or objects of pornography– in that case all the more are objects on unwilling or powerless display (to our greater discomfort.) Think too of those merciless giant images of writhing babies, lined up as one sees them in the hospital area for newborns– the baby display case. All this is dealt with very pointedly one way or another in almost every image. It’s objectification vs. subjectivity. She addresses this stuff in a way very different from expressionist figure painters of earlier generations. Let me add that this is accomplished with economy, skill, directness, and visual knowingness, but she doesn’t try to make anything extra out of that– she simply gets the job done. It’s painting of this time. My way of painting isn’t much like hers, but I had such a sense of recognition of the strength of what she is doing, and hadn’t tried to write it before, so thanks for giving me the prompt to do so.

  2. Ken, thanks so much for sharing. I agree that she does creates an impact with economy and skill, and that the gaze of the subject is key to the viewer’s understanding of it. I especially like your point about the babies of display.

    How do you think she differs from early figurative expressionist painters? I would say sparser, stricter with more use of negative space and an emotional punch…

  3. It’s not a formal or technical difference I’m pointing to. It’s conceptual. Her project is different, and relates to a specific thing about how images are dealt with and handled now. At the moment the human image is a currency in a slightly but distinctly different way, and it’s susceptible to being handled both casually and with a certain dumb cruelty (that we all participate in) through photography, digital proliferation of media, tabloid sensibility…

    I now recall that the reviewer I referred to before compared her unfavorably to Francis Bacon (maybe I misremembered before that it was some Die Brucke artist.) The comparison to Bacon is apples and oranges, and not for formal and ‘painterly skill’ reasons, but because even though Bacon used photos as we know, we wasn’t living in the psychological moment we are in, in terms of the way images are handled and thought of, and in any event, his work just wasn’t about that. He had other things to say.

    Dumas’ work, it seems to me, is about that. She is saying something that wouldn’t have been available to say fifty years ago or eighty years ago.

  4. While that’s certainly a quality to take into consideration with her work, I don’t know if Dumas is using it to say anything in her work. Is she in fact pointing to a lack of sensitivity to such subjects, or is the consideration of how we relate to the human image a byproduct?

  5. I wouldn’t say that it’s anything so pedantic as simply “pointing to a lack of sensitivity to such subjects”. But I do feel she is very clearly and uniquely dealing with a set of tensions around the area that I’ve been describing.

    It’s painting and it’s art, so it’s not illustrating a fixed point, but embodying in various ways a very strong approach to this situation involving the object of view (human face and body or photograph of same), the reproduced image, issues of control, the viewer’s culpability as accessory after the fact, the material facts of painting including its history…

    What emerges in her painting in regard to all this is something very specific and timely.

    I haven’t read or heard her talk about the work, but however she might describe it, it’s clear to me that she goes into her painting project with these issues on the table.

    It’s unusual for me to think this much about a contemporary artist who seems so figurative. I’m mainly thinking about other types of images, but the conversation is interesting, and I guess I have a kind of mania at times about wanting to be clearly understood…

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