SHIMMERING GROTESQUE AND GORGEOUS

By Gabriel Thy • Uncategorized • 12 Dec 2008

MARLENE DUMAS AT THE MUSEUM of Modern Art in New York City. Folks, this is an exhibition that meets the eye with the same might as a two by four.

Ms. Dumas’s work tends to aim for the solar plexus, as the show’s morbid title suggests. Fusing the political and the painterly, it grapples with the complexities of image making, the human soul, sexuality, the beauty of art, the masculinity of traditional painting, the ugliness of social oppression. How much it delivers on these scores is a question that this exhibition doesn’t quite answer.

The show suggests that while this amply talented artist has created some riveting images, her work becomes monotonous and obvious when seen in bulk. She has not substantially varied her subjects or her habit of basing her images on photographs in about 25 years. And when you stand in front of her paintings, far too many other photo-dependent artists come to mind for the pictures to qualify as original. Her work tends too much toward well-done pastiches of ideas and tactics from the last 25 years, primarily Conceptualism, appropriation art and Neo-Expressionism

Ms. Dumas’s stained and brush-worked canvases are lurid in subject or color, and usually both. The subjects include pregnant women; rather monstrous-looking newborns; murdered children and victims of suicide and execution (mostly women); hooded prisoners; forlorn adolescents; bodies in morgues. Each image is served up in a blank, abstract space with handsome trimmings of lush colors and surface action that have their history in Abstract Expressionism and even Color Field painting.

Striking abbreviations and fuzzy blurs make us look twice. Is that woman asleep or dead? Has that naked child been playing with red paint or is that blood on its hands? In many instances such doubts keep you moving between the harsh, suggestive imagery and the brushwork and process, but after a while you may begin to feel a bit manipulated.

Other paintings go for point-blank sensationalism. “Dead Girl” shows just the head and shoulders of a fallen adolescent with blood streaming from her face. Yet in some of Ms. Dumas’s portraits suffering is subtle and implicit, a life sentence and therefore more convincing. In “Moshekwa” the resolute face of a black man fills most of a large canvas with an aura intensified by the shifting tones of his skin, which culminates in a gorgeous patch of dark purple glowing from his forehead like a mark of nobility.

Read the entire NYT review.

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