Carroll Dunham, “Culture as a Verb” (2013–15), mixed media on linen, 78 1/4 x 61 1/8 inches (all photos by David Regen and courtesy Gladstone Gallery)

The odd one out in Carroll Dunham’s current exhibition of paintings at Barbara Gladstone is “Culture as a Verb” (2013–15). It’s the closest thing Dunham, or anyone in my recent memory, has come to painting the feeling of terrified, paranoid sorrow. The paint shows a section of a tree, its stumpy branches protruding outward to the edges of the canvas, auburn leaves dangling and falling; its bottom portion is ensnared by a red mass of spirals and curves; where still visible, the tree is distorted as if seen through a concave lens. The tightness of the protoplasm’s grasp, its every hook outlined in thick black, pulls the entire painting downward, practically through the floor. There’s nothing else like it in the show, or (constituent parts aside) like it in Dunham’s oeuvre. He calls this painting variously: “A totem.” “A sculpture I don’t know how to make.” “An upside down tree that’s been really screwed up.” “A vibe or an aura that can’t be described easily.” “A hunk of wood and some protoplasm.” In other words, the painting is meant to be complex. I of course want him to cop to making a painting about spiritual fear, and his own experience of same, but he won’t give it up for me, which is okay because he won’t give it up for himself either. In conversation Dunham both enlightens and obfuscates. He is deeply articulate about what his paintings are and are not in all their past and present physicality but refuses any easy readings (narrative, biographical) of the actual things depicted between the stretcher bars:

I know that my experience of making my work is to not be conscious of these influences. But if I look back, there seems to be a time lag to this resistance to interpretation. So if I look back to when my wife and I were married and we started having kids, I think I can see changes in my work, and I think I can see changes in my work from having grown children, and I can see things in my work from the time my kids were small, but I wasn’t thinking that at the time. I appear to reserve a big continent of denial for myself in order to be able to do my work. If I didn’t, I couldn’t do my work.

He’s of course aware of what he won’t say, and knows it’s in keeping with the work itself, which, while cueing narrative readings, is as much (if not more so) about formal concerns as it is about literal subject matter, which is why these paintings as paintings are so compelling. They need to be read apart from the subject matter (say, a bather, a sky, a horse) from the content contained on the canvas (marks, colors, masterfully layered paint handling). One constant in the conversations I’ve had over the past year or so with the artist (and only recorded last month) is that Dunham tends to return to his past, not as nostalgia, but as a way to consider how he got to where he is in painting. Chats about his work circle back to earlier paintings and to his baseline methodology, which makes sense given his stated goal that the work generate itself — that he finds ways to move forward from elements inside his operating system — and as he recently mentioned, he’s wondering what, as an artist of a certain age, he’s supposed to be doing, exactly. This attention to the passage of time is recorded on the painting themselves, as multiple work dates scrawled across each work become as much a part of the image as any normative subject.

Carroll Dunham, “Big Bang (actual size) 2” (2013–15), mixed media on linen, 47 x 43 1/8 inches

Here is Dunham’s thought process on his trio of Big Bang paintings, works that began as attempts to make paintings that don’t refer to a thing in the world. Ironically he settled for paintings that represent not a thing in the world, but the world itself.

[The Big Bang idea] came to me after I finished the first one of the three. Up until that point, the working title was something like “Blobs of Yellow Plasm.” I didn’t know what to call them. They weren’t celestial bodies, I knew that. Size and scale were very important, and I knew I wanted to make something voluminous and inflated. I thought of them as abstract paintings and I think that’s what they are. When I thought about the Big Bang I liked that it had all the associations I like, with expansion and building blocks, and if this theory is to be taken seriously, then the thing in its exploding phase would be that scale. It’s amazing. It’s stupid, but it’s incredible. I thought it was a good way to contain the group of paintings. Not literal, but interesting to me.

They share things, they have different emphases. The first paintings I made back in the day that I thought were really mine were yellow monochromes that I drew on with charcoal. I’m trying to reexamine my early thoughts about painting and see what it means to me now. My whole idea about how to make paintings came from an idea about a diagram of a painting. Painting as a demonstration model.

Now I’m wondering, is painting still a diagram to you? Is it a picture? Is it an object? This is interesting to me to think about while I work. So there’s a certain gravity right now pulling me back to my initial thoughts about painting. I’m not really sure why. The idea of art as diagram is one of the fundamental ways you can think about art, and if I’m really honest with myself, it might be one of the fundamental things about my art. Everything is outlined, everything is diagrammed in a way.

I can’t say what changes my work. My subjective experience is that my work never changes, it’s always the same problems, it’s always the same kind of looking for it, and you’re always coming up against yourself in a similar way. I know rationally that now my work looks different than it did at other points, but it’s been such a continuity of experience for me that it’s hard sometimes to see the changes. I am a dog with a bone. I am going through drawing which leads to painting and print-making, and that’s how I’ve always been. Since I represented myself as an artist to myself, I thought of it as a focused train of thought. I don’t walk down the street and see something and go, “wow, that goes into my work.” It comes from within the work as self-generating thing that I channel. That’s the story I tell myself. Everyone has a different story they tell themselves.

Carroll Dunham, “Horse and Rider (My X)” (2013–15), mixed media on linen, 115 3/4 x 80 inches

With a serious sense of play, Dunham jokes that the Big Bang paintings are “actual size” (that’s in the title) if, for a micro second, you managed to catch the big bang as it was happening. They are also the smallest works in the show. They are dwarfed by “Horse and Rider (My X) (2013–15),” which draws out Dunham’s subject vs. content concerns and explicitly asks us to consider what is the real subject: the “X” dividing the painting into four quadrants and bringing us to the center of another universe, or a depth of space composed of multiple recessive planes like a stage flats, with a the gentle horse gazing back at us, its oval eyes, asking, I thought, for a bit of quiet while the Bather exalted; the artist, on the other hand, reads those eyes as “What the fuck has she gotten me into?”

It started off as a fantasy of a painting of a woman on a horse. When I started it one of the first things I did was to snap chalk lines to make an X, which I used to understand the segments of the painting, and which I then decided to make another subject. So to me the painting has two levels, which is why it has two subtitles. When I was young I had to get away from systems in art in order to find myself as an artist [systems exemplified by his stint as a studio assistant for Dorothea Rockburne, who made multiple bodies of work with geometric folds and, in particular the X as a generative principle], so when it came back into my work in an organic way, I found that interesting and my own. I really do think the X is as important as the horse and the rider and the other subjects. In some ways more so.

When I first started making drawings about this painting the horse was looking into the back of the space. It was one of those things where you see how you might draw something, you do it, and it just completely changes the space of the painting. It’s almost like the entire premise of the thing flips around. There’s a weird eye contact thing that I’ve always assiduously avoided in my work, even taking it out of paintings, so this is the first time that I thought: all right, bring it. This is going to be a face staring out of the painting. But there are all these narrative implications, and spatially it’s so much more complex and interesting. I always think of myself as making formal adjustments, not narrative adjustments. The human mind wants to project a story, and I’m feeding that in myself, where there is no story. But there are peripheral narrative implications to this situation. When the horse is staring back at you, you want to give it all these motives.

Carroll Dunham, “Game” (2013–15). mixed media on linen, 95 1/4 x 75 1/4 inches

Narrative implications abound in the other major Bather painting, “Game,” (2013–15) which finds the bather swinging toward the viewer, her body recessing deep into an aqua sky, sun perched just above her head. Most intriguing in the picture are four birds of an indeterminate species, rendered like balls of yarn, each in a different pose. The birds began as classic “m” glyphs in “Horse and Rider” and when the artist found the swinging bather unsatisfying on her own, he allowed the birds to fully arrive. To my mind they are reminiscent of the stroke-heavy illustrative drawing of Alex Raymond, and Dunham confesses:

I didn’t have any real idea of how do that [depict the birds] and I realized that drawing wasn’t going to get me there. I did have to draw a handful of bird outlines, but most of the drawing I did happened on the canvas with graphite sticks. I didn’t know what the birds looked like, so I just went for it. My grandfather used to carve duck decoys, and my uncles hunted ducks. I used to see that stuff a lot, and I like the idea of carving. I think there was a time when I was a kid that I carved birds out of balsa wood. I approached it as painting-as-carving. I knew they had to be solid objects.

Carroll Dunham, “Now and Around Here (1)” (2011–15), mixed media on linen, 66 1/8 x 51 1/8 inches

When I first saw all the works for this exhibition I assumed Dunham was leaving the tree-water-sky universe he’s been explicitly working with over the last decade in a series of paintings of enormous nude women, trees, flora and skies. He’s likely not, and instead introduced a new element via a trio of paintings called “Now and Around Here” (2011–15): a reclining male nude emanating from the bottom corners. To get to this or any completely new composition, Dunham will produce a blizzard of drawings. He calls drawing an “armature” on which he can hang the painting. He draws and draws again until he gets a given composition right, using a specific visual vocabulary. That vocabulary has been with him since the beginning of his work:

Call them marks, things one draws, the nuts and bolts of things. It’s all things lines do. Cycloid curve, sine curve, spiral, ellipse, ellipses with a line in the middle. They drift. They recombine. They distort. But they’re basically the building blocks of everything I’ve done, whatever the subject or lack of it. It’s interesting now to be conscious of that and play with it.

Repetitive muscle memory and a consistent set of building blocks facilitates the kind of daring composition of the Now and Around Here series. Dunham worked through perhaps 150 drawings before arriving at the compositional sweet spot. If the Big Bang paintings avoid the corners, this series uses the corners as the basis of the painting — the glue of it all.

The premise is a way to make the space where that body can be in. I organized the three paintings in my mind as small, medium, large, secondary colors for the sky, plants, humans, animals. But no requirement that a female presence be there except that I wanted to draw it in the second painting.

Carroll Dunham, “Now and Around Here (3)” (2015), mixed media on linen, 88 1/8 x 68 1/8 inches

The most striking of these is the final canvas, “Now and Around Here (3)” (2015), with its dog looking out at the viewer. It’s a friendly dog, and harkens to the birds and the horse. Dunham notes, “I’m trying to find a way to get the whole human race in there along with its close friends. It just seems like the imperative. That’s where my imagination goes.” The scene itself, with its falling leaves and autumnal colors, is in some ways a companion to “Culture as a Verb,” but less frightening. Sorrowful, yes, but also hopeful. The reclining man has also seen bright skies of green and purple, but now things have changed, and perhaps the flip side to fear is renewal and companionship. Hard to say, really, but that one gets at Dunham’s contradictions and unabashed (though winking) grandeur.

The dog came about because, if I thought about organizing those three paintings around subject matter, the first thing that came to mind would be a dog. I think of these as being in some world that is ancient or has not yet occurred. I thought of the dog as the first dog ever. I was trying to imagine what the first dog ever would be. At first he seemed like a lunatic, but then he got friendly.

And with that, our conversation circled back to Dunham wanting to paint abstractions, to the inadequacy of that word and of the pictorial language that word signifies. But then again, we wind up back at the dog, who for my purposes embodies the divide that makes Dunham such a fascinating — at once a narrative signifier and an abstract cypher. A bundle of color and lines, and a soulful gaze. Dunham lives in that contradiction: “I’m not a painter who worries about dog’s personalities, it’s a different order of business. It’s fascinating to me. Part of me wants to run away from all this, part of me wants to double down. That seems about right.”

Installation view of ‘Carroll Dunham’ (2015), Gladstone Gallery, New York

Carroll Dunham continues at Gladstone Gallery (515 West 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through December 4.

Dan Nadel, founder of the Grammy Award-winning publishing company PictureBox, has authored books including Art Out of Time: Unknown Comic Visionaries, 1900–1969 (2006) and Gary Panter (2008), as well...