Carroll Dunham’s recent paintings are a dark comment on the tradition of the idyll, which goes back a long way in painting, and includes such modernist highpoints as Paul Gauguin’s “The Seed of the Areoi“ (1892) and Henri Matisse’s “Luxe, Calme et Volupte” (1904) and “Joy of Life“ (1906). In addition to celebrating rustic life, the idyllic tradition evokes an Eden-like world unaffected by evil and suffering.
Matisse’s title comes from a poem by Charles Baudelaire, “L’Invitation au voyage (Invitation to a Voyage),” about an imagined island:
Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté,
Luxe, calme et volupté.
(There all is order and beauty,
Luxury, peace, and pleasure)
The domain encountered in Dunham’s paintings, currently on exhibit at the Gladstone Gallery (November 29, 2012–January 19, 2013), is a long way from the ones portrayed by Baudelaire, Gauguin and Matisse. Its sole inhabitant is an oversized, gray female nude outlined in black (as is everything else in the painting), and usually seen from behind, a character Dunham described best when he said — in a 2009 interview in the Brooklyn Rail — that “[i]t was like the doctor deciding to make a female version of Frankenstein out of spare parts.”
Taking Dunham at his word, the spare parts would seem to come from his cartoony male figure with a top hat, big teeth, and a phallic/pistol nose, which populated his paintings for around a decade, from the mid-1990s to around 2005-06. It seems that Dunham’s “Eve” was born from his “Adam,” an eyeless male blindly shooting his aggression at whatever is in front of him.
* * *
There is a prominent horizon line in all of the paintings featuring Dunham’s gray-skinned Bride of Frankenstein, often with one of her hands or feet missing and apparently amputated. The sky above the horizon is a cloudless blue field on which the artist has painted either a large circle or radiant orb in bright yellow. The area beneath the horizon line is divided into rudimentarily painted, color-coded schematic sections (blue for water and umber for earth). Tree trunks with branches missing or broken off, often placed in the foreground, traverse the landscape, dividing it into smaller sections, further defining the stage-like space.
Dunham’s Eden is a stage-like setting, where the placement of every tree, plant, flower and leaf renders nature into a highly artificial, carefully choreographed, fictive space, where his bloodless, naked, oversized woman — the offspring of Fernando Botero’s smooth, inflated bodies and R. Crumb’s coarse, chunky, over-sexualized females — takes center stage. She has thick limbs; big feet; floppy breasts; huge buttocks; a red, raw, gaping vagina; and a tangled mass of thick black hair. As with Botero and Crumb, Dunham’s work both embodies and releases a broadside of scathing criticism. The question is -— who and what is his unrelenting criticism aimed at?
Dunham’s stiff gray lady is also Picasso’s curvy, pneumatic teenage mistress, Marie-Thérese Walter, grown old — her breasts sagging, but her vagina still open and hungry. Look at the profile in Dunham’s “Next Bathers, three (reeds)” (2012), and you will see an echo of Walter’s Grecian nose. Picasso’s female exudes sex and desire. He slyly turned Walter’s mouth into a hairy slit, alluding to fellatio, while Dunham’s living corpse broadcasts insatiable hunger via the blunt mutation of her vagina into a hairy mouth.
In “Large Bather (quicksand)” (2012), which is the largest painting in the exhibition, the woman’s asshole is a black dot ringed in pink. It is like staring into a vacuum cleaner nozzle. The artist has lightly penciled a large X over the hole, both marking the spot and cancelling it out. Beneath it is the vagina, a horizontal slit surrounded by pink flesh (the one sign of life in this gray body), with a fringe of beard growing along the bottom edge. Whereas Picasso created a landscape of male desire, Dunham seems intent on creating a topography of disdain and disgust.
Finally, the distinctly sectioned lower limbs of Dunham’s female Frankenstein recalls Hans Bellmer’s fragmented doll, its mutilated body. Dunham often removes one of his figure’s exterior limbs, effectively crippling her, while fetishizing her sexual organs, or what Bellmer called “pink pleats.”
* * *
While nearly every observer has characterized the cartoony, blind killer in Dunham’s earlier paintings as an apt metaphor for male aggression, it seems to me that the opposite view is also true; he is a fitting emblem of male impotence. Almost always seen in profile, a flat body and head, he is engaged in a futile act of discharging his weapon/nose into the air, perhaps dimly aware that a standoff is the best that he can achieve. It is a world where everyone is firing or about to fire at one another to no avail. By depicting his characters in profile, Dunham defined a world that is adjacent to but ultimately separate from our own. We have seen the enemy, and it is not us.
As the years passed, it became increasingly tiresome to watch the same figure popping up, sometimes coyly, in the work. Dunham must have also gotten weary of using him, knowing he had to kill him off. Finally, from 2005 to 2006, in a number of drawings, the artist depicted the male figure seen from behind, aiming a gun — his balls and penis nowhere to be found, his asshole open and gaping. In the painting “Square Mule” (2007), the now transgendered figure — part male (his nose is a phallus) and part female (a gaping hairy vagina) — is pushing an L-shaped gun into his/her own asshole. Is this figure an alter ego that needed to self-annihilate?
* * *
Dunham has supplanted his blind killers (or dickheads) with a Bride of Frankenstein, but he continues his practice of penciling the dates he worked on the painting on its surface. Perusing the bottom of “Large Bather (quicksand)” (2012), viewers will learn that the artist started the painting in September 2006 and that he worked on it for various lengths of time until 2012. One reason Dunham writes or draws in pencil on the painting’s matte surface is to activate variously colored shapes, each of which is demarcated by a thick black outline or skeletal armature. The other reason is to impress the viewer with the amount of time it took him to make the painting. The pencil notations in work after work give the feeling that Dunham needs to show the viewer that he’s punched the clock. Perhaps he feels insecure about working in acrylic and wants everyone to know that it is not as easy as it looks. Whatever the reason, the dates’ continual reappearance, like a bad penny, turns the marking of time into a self-serving gesture.
* * *
Dunham’s shift from a flat realm populated by blind, gun-toting males to a spatial domain occupied by a gray, thick-limbed woman who is completely oblivious to the voyeuristic viewer, suggests that he is casting a coolly cynical eye on the idyllic tradition, with its celebration of innocence and community. By cropping her limbs or partially immersing her in quicksand, or by placing her among trees whose branches have been cut off, the artist implies that she is both a helpless and hopeless presence in a violence-prone, natural world.
Dunham’s helpless female figure shares something with John Currin’s “Girl in Bed” (1993). The difference is that Dunham’s figure is muscular and highly active—she is plucking a fruit from a branch (shades of Eve), diving, swimming, and kneeling in water. Her stiff, oversized reddish-pink nipples seem to belong on a giant’s baby bottle or huge sex doll. Seen in profile, with a tangle of thick black hair hiding most of her face, or from behind, she (like Dunham’s dickheads) exists in a domain that is adjacent to ours. We get to see her, but she never notices that she is being watched.
If this figure is a metaphor, is she the living corpse of Mother Nature, the sole inhabitant of a world of hacked trees? If that is Dunham’s intention, then the problem is that he implicates neither himself nor the viewer. As the audience, we are unable and, perhaps more tellingly, unwilling to intervene. In this regard, he has produced the perfect super-scaled painting for the well-heeled collector who thinks nothing of making a large carbon footprint at every opportunity — it is both a right and a sign of success.
* * *
When it comes to making a work of art, the artist’s sense of grandeur should not be underestimated. He is both god and Doctor Frankenstein, powerful and impotent. In the Brooklyn Rail interview that I cited earlier, Dunham stated “that painting was a philosophical category that [he] wanted to operate in … ” Fair enough. His female Frankenstein brings to mind the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer who believed that women are “childish, foolish and shortsighted.”
During the past fifty years a number of woman artists redefined the idyllic tradition, effectively invigorating what had become a moribund possibility. I am thinking of artists as distinct as Leonora Carrington, Joan Brown and Judith Linhares, whose humor is good-natured and contagious. Dunham’s humor feels forced. In these paintings, where every form is isolated with a substantial black line, he proves himself to be a graphic artist rather than a painter. Perhaps this is what his dickheads are angry about or why, in a number of his recent paintings, his female Frankenstein is missing a hand. He feels that his power has been usurped and he is exacting his revenge, painting by painting.
If anything is contagious in Dunham’s exhibition, it is the coolly calculated cynicism. How else to explain the following? I usually ask for a copy of the checklist when I’m considering a review of a show. When I asked the young woman at the desk for a checklist, a pile of which were sitting on the counter, she said, “No.” And then, as I started walking toward the door, she offered me this view: “Life is tough, isn’t it?”
Carroll Dunham continues at Gladstone Gallery (515 West 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) until January 19, 2013.