The Wall 2009
March 18-April 24 2010
533 West 19th St.
Well, it's official. I don't hate Marlene Dumas anymore. For years, I've been hearing about her work and seeing the stuff everywhere. Consequently, I blocked it out, victimized by oversaturation and what I thought was a disproportionate excitement over works that struck me as mostly insipid and self-indulgent.
Dumas, like contemporaries Elizabeth Peyton, John Currin, Lisa Yuskavage, and Michael Borremans, paints pictures of people doing things.
Of course, Currin and Yuskavage like to paint people doing slightly titilating things. Like touching tit or tweaking the teats of those with tits. Each, to their credit is odd enough to make the tit tweaking actually tittilating. Currin's figures are squirmy and Mannerist, like Kate Moss, except curiously pretty instead of peculiarly creepy. And Yuskavage's works look like a cotton candy machine on full tilt, so they're fun, if nothing else. And, both can move paint with the best of them.
Peyton, too, who seems to have built a career on painting pictures of people that our collective cultural memory deems important. They're usually doing important people things, like smoking or walking around, so important people doing important people things apparently makes for important paintings. Or dull, were it not that Peyton actually does wonderful things with her materials. Ultimately, we get interesting paintings of interesting paint depicting uninteresting people doing uninteresting things. So we break even.
Borremans is about the same to me. Interesting painter, uninteresting people. And, bless his heart, he looks sort of like a poor man's Luc Tuymans to me, which is the kiss of death, because Tuymans is one of the better painters working today and has maintained a level of consistency that makes the rest of the bunch look like dabblers and dilettantes. But Booremans isn't all bad, and tends to be worth the time.
Dumas was about one show away from being lumped in with the rest of them until this most recent show at Zwirner. Total redemption.
Now, this can't be understood without a nod to the 2008-09 MoMA semi-retrospective Marlene Dumas: Measuring Your Own Grave. Poor Dumas really did get the short end of the stick, with her exhibition running in parallel with MoMA's Miro retrospective. Sort of like watching me shoot hoops with LeBron. Anyway, the PR for the exhibition says it all: "Dumas merges themes of race, sexuality, and social identity with personal experience and art-historical antecedents to create a unique perspective on important and controversial issues of the day." Notwithstanding a worthy and honorable curatorial intention, this is code for "blah blah blah." Or, translated into another over-art historicized English, Dumas makes paintings that suit the omnivorous sado-parasitism of our contemporary media culture. Unfortunately, much like the text, the paintings didn't say much beyond what they were. The paintings were bland, the show was bland, and I left wondering why I'd been guilted into caring about Dumas at all.
Then, I saw the Zwirner show. I like being wrong. Dumas is, in fact, a very strong painter. She seems currently possessed of a fixation on dry application and brushwork that barely sketches the essential elements of any form. And, thankfully, her subject matter has visibly matured, engaging the complex politics of the Middle East, Israel/Palestine in particular.
The Wall is a great one. More or less, compositionally inert, the painting is made of two competing sets of five verticals, one of people, one of the slabs that make up the Wailing Wall. The whole thing is sublimely self-reflexive, a picture of people standing in front of a wall, for people standing in front of a wall looking at a picture hung on a wall. The explicit rectilinearity of things--mostly the perpendicularity of our gaze in relation to the mirrored parallels of the painting, the Wailing Wall, and the gallery wall--stabilizes the composition and reminds me of the depth of tradition of pictures of people looking at pictures. Struth's museum photographs, Rockwell's art critic, they're both in there. It's wonderful stuff, implicitly Modernist in its perpetual flatness and beligerently contemporary in the frozen temporality with which it depicts a recurrent ritual occurring at one of the great palimpsests of both history and politics. Man Watching is much the same, the great repoussoir of the Road Map.
Under Construction swivels the picture plane ever so slightly, implying an eternity of expansion, the infinity of time displaced by the Israeli security fence, that blemish of the now on the land through which our collective history must pass.
Mindblocks was probably my favorite, something a bit Ernstian in its stacked masses and faux-decalcomania. What were once the citadels of Ernst's own apocalyptic imagination are replaced by an insistently mundane stack of stones, blocking a road, probably the one from that Map. The grim inevitability of the present is lost within the diversity of her paint applications, a strange paradox that allows our refuge in the autonomy of abstraction while always reminding us of its connectedness to contemporary events. Painting and politics: never the twain shall not meet.
Go to the site. Read the titles, linger over the word play, consider the truth of which they speak, both political and painterly.
Dumas has done something quite magisterial with this exhibition. She has made paintings that are wonderful to look upon. She has made paintings that are wonderful to think about. She deserves much credit. We should all start paying attention.