The Human Metaphor: Marlene Dumas and Barkley Hendricks | The Nation


The Human Metaphor: Marlene Dumas and Barkley Hendricks

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MoMA Jen (2005), by Marlene Dumas

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Barry Schwabsky
Barry Schwabsky is the art critic of The Nation. Schwabsky has been writing about art for the magazine since 2005, and...

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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."

It may be typical of Dumas's paintings to show a single figure, but it wouldn't be quite correct to say the figure is typically alone. It's just that the other person is not in the picture--this person being, of course, the viewer, who was in the first instance the photographer. The people Dumas paints are rarely engaged in any activity except showing themselves. They are posing; they open themselves to the gaze. They are never taken unawares. No wonder Dumas is drawn to prostitutes and to pornography for her subject matter. But her fascination with the act of posing only makes those of her paintings that are based on unposed photographs seem all the more poignant: paintings of the dead, of sleepers and of infants--subjects with whom there's no question of playing to the camera. (In this regard, the toddlers Dumas also likes to paint have already lost their innocence; even so young, one already knows how to pose.)

In the pose, Dumas's idiomatic distinction between "taking" a picture and "making" one is dissolved: the subject collaborates in the production of his or her image. It's only when the pose is absent that the image can truly be said to have been taken. By the same token, these "taken" images are among those that seem to challenge Dumas to an even more heightened intensity of making. They're not necessarily better paintings, but they give a greater sense of the painter's struggle with her material. Her other subjects' poses are often seductive, and she can make immensely seductive paintings out of them, paintings in which the fluency of the brush conjures up a sensual immediacy that few other contemporary painters can match. But with more recalcitrant material, Dumas digs into the image in a different way--less pleasurably, perhaps, but with an impressive insistence.

What the paintings don't get from their photographic sources is detail, above all that sort of random, unforeseeable detail that Roland Barthes famously called the "punctum" of the photograph, "that accident which pricks me...bruises me." Undoubtedly the photos Dumas chooses have such an effect on her, but in being painted they change. Turning the image into a map for the movements of her brush, Dumas generalizes the bodies and faces she paints. That doesn't mean she loses the specific character or attitude that individualizes each one; rather, she omits nearly everything but that. And this is what makes the paintings so touching. The contributors to the catalog are a little too caught up, for my taste, in the exercise of comparing the paintings to their source photographs--an exercise whose main value is to confirm the photographs' final irrelevance to any appreciation of the paintings' specificity as such. But Shiff makes an interesting point in talking about the source for the painting Jen (2005), which shows, from an eccentric angle, the head and breast of a sleeping woman (but whom one might easily have imagined to be dead). "One aspect of the source photograph that attracted the painter is far more idiosyncratic than intimations of sleep or death: Dumas noticed how the photographic perspective had set the woman's nipple extremely close to her face, and she even wondered whether the real nipple was not anatomically displaced (rather than merely appearing so)." This apparent displacement is obviously the site of the photograph's punctum. What the painting absolutely doesn't provoke is that question about what is real and what appears so. The structure of the painting produces a formal equivalence of part to part, so that the nipple, nearly black though saturated with red, the focal point of the painting, nonetheless strikes the viewer as essentially a concentration of the reddish-gray murk of its background--which is to say that the painting undoes its own implicit hierarchy of attention. That's why the painting as a whole--rather than just the figure it depicts--conveys a terrible vulnerability. Dumas speaks of empathy as the aim of her work; a painting like Jen achieves it with understated force.

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