Marlene Dumas: Measuring Your Own Grave
The Menil Collection, Houston
March 27-June 21, 2009
The Painter (1994)
What’s in a face? Everything and nothing, it seems, in the works of Marlene Dumas. For while her striking canvases are full of faces that blend heightened specificity and intense obliquity, they seem—whether living or dead, peacefully asleep or sexually aroused—as secretive as the grave. Marlene Dumas: Measuring Your Own Grave is a major, mid-career retrospective of the paintings of South African born but Dutch residing Dumas. The show, organized by The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA) and the Museum of Modern Art, New York (MoMA), debuted in Los Angeles before moving to New York on its way to its final stop in Houston.
Dumas paints from images, be they photos in newspapers or stills from films. But rather than two sad removes from the real, these works feel chillingly if mysteriously direct. If the photorealism of Chuck Close made the painted image disappear into the apparent verisimilitude of photography, Dumas’s paintings, in a world saturated with a surplus of documentation and surveillance, return to the photographic image the damaged and intense aura of the real. Dumas works with bold, strokes that alternate between precision and crudity, all rendered in a cadaverous palette sometimes interrupted by bursts of vivid if rarely primary color.
Her subjects expose the vulnerability of faces and bodies in states of inadvertent revelation. These are not figures surprised but those whose intent with respect to the observer is uncertain however bashfully or boldly they stare out—those neither sleeping nor dead, that is. The world of Dumas seems, at first glance, quite dark. A series of paintings called Imaginary feature dead girls, reminiscent of Goya’s eerie The Disasters of War: Tampoco, hanging from nooses, faces averted from the gaze of the viewer. The title work, Measuring Your Own Grave (2003) features a canvas horizontally bisected by a black line. Above the line against a purplish-black backdrop, a torso bends so far forward to measure its own grave that all we see are the expansive, outstretched arms and the top of the head fading into the black outlines of legs dangle inhumanly into the white field of the grave below.
What are these figures supposed to tell us? One of the more recent works, Dead Marilyn (2008), renders the mannish decay of that most famous and fallen of iconic blondes who was captured in infamous photos taken during her autopsy. In Dumas, the hair has faded to a whitish age and the skin sags, released from Monroe’s burden to sink into the gray hues of decay mitigated only by accents of a bluish tint. Is this how an icon dies—alone and in her own arms just like everyone else? Or does is the captivating corruption of the icon were merely another face of her attraction?
Death of the Author
In the works of Dumas, death and sex share a great more than clichés can name. In addition to the haunting figures of death, near-death, or sleep (and at times these states are nearly indistinguishable), a series of portraits of women, sex workers of Dumas’s home city of Amsterdam, tease with the promise of revelation. In Leather Boots (2000),
the lithe body of a stripper or dancer crouches against a bright yellow background, posing in her window for customers. Her face we see from the side, angled up. We are allowed the hint of nipple, the fetish of her leather boots but not her eyes. Neither the dead nor the aroused share with us the promise of ultimate release. Rather, they make clear their secrets will be neither exhausted nor revealed; hence their force.
Primarily it is the faces that acquire iconic power in this exhibit. Two series, perhaps the most striking, face one another across the divide of a doorway: Black Drawings (1991-2) and Models (1994). These should all be faces in a crowd. Neither celebrity nor infamy reign here as they do elsewhere. Each face is anonymous and unique; the combination feels rare. And it’s hard not to feel that one will never know if these eyes are following us around the gallery, watching as we watch them, or if they are looking elsewhere, unconcerned. There’s even sly humor throughout the works, however grim they appear. After scanning through dozens of faces in Models, one finds, hidden in plain sight, a portrait of a snake staring back, ready for its 15 minutes of fame.
If the politics of portraiture rests not only in how we look but at whom, many of the subjects Dumas represents seem overtly if ambiguously political. How not to see, in the specificity of these African faces, the lived experience of a white South African reflecting back on her origins after decades of expatriate life? How not to see, in a series of Muslim portraits—some meditative, some blindfolded—or in the oddly gentle portrait of Osama Bin Laden called The Pilgrim (2006), the curiosity and worry of an age of terror? The Believer (2005) represents the most interesting of these; it is enigmatic solicits our engagement. The Bin Laden is perhaps least effective, over-determined by overexposure and the enormity of Bin Laden’s politics.
Before entering the exhibition hall, the viewer passes The Woman of Algiers (2001), her naked body segmented by a censor’s modesty bands as two anonymous hands pull her into custody. Across from this, in the gallery proper The Painter (1994) looks out, the portrait of the artist’s naked daughter, perhaps 6 or 8, each hand dipped in a different color; these violent shades of red and blue dripping from her hands are the only interruption of the serious and pale portrait. This is maybe the most singular portrait, and one wonders, as The Painter and The Woman of Algiers face one another, what these two women make of one another.
Such are the conversations these paintings provoke as Dumas asks what it means to face another person. Her painterly landscape is almost allegorical in its incitement of interpretation. But unlike simple allegory, here we find no crude personifications or easy identifications. These works generate questions but they do not answer them. This is the source of their discomfiting power. Marlene Dumas: Measuring Your Own Grave is not to be missed. And as we consider Dumas encountering the world, we wonder just where and what she might face next.