Close Up of the Artist as an Intellectual Expressionist: Marlene Dumas at the MoMA

Photo by Martin Godwin.

‘Erotic displays of mental confusions’ is how Marlene Dumas describes her best works. Born in Kuilsriver in 1953, she left South Africa in 1976 on a scholarship to study at the Atelier '63 in Haarlem, the Netherlands and more than 30 years later she is still living in Amsterdam. And she’s a painter who writes to boot: ‘I write about art because I want to speak for myself. I might not be the only authority, nor the best authority, but I want to participate in the writing of my own history. Why should artists be validated by outside authorities? I don't like being paternalised and colonised by every Tom, Dick and Harry that comes along (male or female).’

Here’s someone who doesn’t take things lying down. Not by a far stretch. Marlene Dumas makes paintings with no concept of the taboo. She often deals with eroticism and sexuality, sometimes using images from magazines or her own photographs shot in Amsterdam's red light district. Next to sexuality, issues like racism, religion, motherhood and childhood are all presented with blatant and unsettling honesty. Her images undermine universally held belief systems: in an article in the yearbook The Low Countries it was noted how Dumas 'exploits misconceptions', thus creating chilling 'new fairytales'.

The critic Patricia Ellis once pointed to the fact that Dumas is often labelled an ‘intellectual expressionist’: ‘Stripped of the niceties of moral consolation, Marlene Dumas's work provokes unmitigated horror. She offers no comfort to the viewer, only an unnerving complicity and confusion between victims and oppressors.’ Technically and stylistically in Dumas’ work the boundaries between painting and drawing get blurred: ‘Bold lines and shapes mix seamlessly with ephemeral washes and thick gestural brushwork’ (Ellis). Distortion and simplifaction take the viewer into the heart of darkness of a so-called ‘civilised’ human nature. It’s no wonder then that in 2000 she was among the artists who took part in an exhibition labelled ‘obscene’ by a French child protection group.

But this is art that deals with its own nature as well. Dumas’ painting Measuring Your Own Grave shows a figure bowing toward the viewer. The figure’s arms stretch the width of the canvas. This gesture and the painting’s title suggest that the space of the canvas becomes the figure’s coffin or grave. But it’s also the artist reflecting on the process of representation itself.

Marlene Dumas, Measuring Your Own Grave (2003, Private collection). © 2008 Marlene Dumas / photo by Andy Keate

Measuring Your Own Grave is now also the title of a comprehensive exhibition of Dumas’ work. Organized by The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, in association with The Museum of Modern Art, New York, it was on view at MOCA from June 22 through September 22, 2008 and is now to be seen at the MoMA (December 14, 2008–February 16, 2009 ) After this presentation, the exhibition will travel to The Menil Collection, Houston, where it will be gracing the walls – although such a phrase is not even remotely suitable for this provocative, or rather thought-provoking, work – from March 26 through June 21, 2009. The exhibition provides an opportunity to trace the artist’s themes over the course of her career and is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue.

So go and see what Dumas has to offer. And don’t be afraid to bend over and take a very close look. Because according to Dumas painting is about the trace of the human touch: ‘A painting is something you have to get up close to. To see, you have to get intimate. If a painting doesn't change as you get closer, it is not a good painting.’

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