Once upon a time it seemed obvious that the future of painting lay in abstraction and that representation was becoming a thing of the past. Today it’s abstraction that has been eclipsed. And yet it would be misleading to say that representation, in the sense that was developed in the Renaissance and remained the standard for European painting until Modernism, has made a comeback. One no longer paints from life but from images; the problem is no longer how to reconstruct the visual effect of three-dimensional volumes in space on a two-dimensional surface but rather how to translate a relatively light and consumable image into one that is materially and psychologically much denser and more durable.
In the 1960s, painters like Gerhard Richter, Vija Celmins and Malcolm Morley, among others, tried to attack the issue by painting the “look” of the photographic image. Today their successors are more likely to work from photographic sources by rendering them with a loose and painterly facture that blatantly plays up the differences between photographic and painted images. In great part, this is because of the influence of the Amsterdam-based, Cape Town-born artist Marlene Dumas, whose first mature works date from around 1984 but who began to accrue a big international reputation in the ’90s. Her retrospective, “Measuring Your Own Grave,” curated by Cornelia Butler, is on view at the Museum of Modern Art through February 16. The exhibition, which was previously shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, will be at the Menil Collection in Houston from March 27 to June 21.
Dumas is entirely a painter of people. You won’t find landscapes, still lifes or other motifs in her exhibition–hardly even as background to her figures. Occasionally there is a vaguely adumbrated interior. All her attention is on the figure, or sometimes just the face. And although Dumas keeps up the great Dutch tradition of group portraiture with a number of impressive multifigure compositions like The Turkish Schoolgirls (1987), as well as others that are not here, unfortunately a pair of unusually weak group portraits from 1997, Colorfields and Ryman’s Brides, have been chosen instead. Dumas also likes to tweak the conventions of group portraiture by depicting her groups from behind, though none of those paintings are at MoMA–look in the catalog for Group Show (1993) and the The Visitor (1995) as good examples. But mostly she sticks to the formula of one canvas (or sheet of paper) equals one person. Dumas treats her subjects as if she didn’t notice anyone else in the room, or the room itself. For the most part, this exclusivity of focus flatters her usually anonymous subjects: it doesn’t idealize or beautify them, but it underlines their importance.
Because one’s engagement with the painting becomes so exclusively a focus on a single body or head, its surroundings fade into insignificance–and so do the limits of the rectangle on which it appears. The individual takes on the grandeur of a whole world. But the intensity of attention that is the hallmark of Dumas’s approach to the figure is really an intensity of imagination, of invention–not of observation. “You can’t TAKE a painting,” she has written. “You MAKE a painting.” To the extent that her work represents a sort of paragone between painting and photography, the vindication of her preferred medium rides on her ability to use the tactile variousness of paint to invest the image with more life, though one of an uncanny and finally inexplicable sort. “Painting increases the animation and multifaceted character of its model,” as Richard Shiff puts it in his catalog essay. Strangely, this is true even when the subject is a corpse. Not that Dumas uses painting to magically reanimate the dead; rather, in a painting like the ghoulish Dead Marilyn (2008), she gives death itself an uncanny energy through the vigor, urgency and brutal contrariness of her mark-making. That’s what justifies her in saying, “I am an artist who uses secondhand images and firsthand experiences.”