The work of Marlene Dumas inspires a sense of wonder: I wonder where to place her in the contemporary scheme of things. And I wonder what all the fuss is about. More to the point, how did she recently merit a mid-career survey of 70 paintings and 35 drawings, along with several large series of drawings, which sprawled over a dozen or so rooms at New York’s Museum of Modern Art?
The work of Marlene Dumas inspires a sense of wonder: I wonder where to place her in the contemporary scheme of things. And I wonder what all the fuss is about. More to the point, how did she recently merit a mid-career survey of 70 paintings and 35 drawings, along with several large series of drawings, which sprawled over a dozen or so rooms at New York’s Museum of Modern Art? Is she a genuine phenomenon or a naked empress?To my mind Dumas’s neo-expressionist art works are more pedantic than passionate, more spectacle than substance, more didactic than revealing substantial depth. Dumas unabashedly tackles outsized subjects, to be sure – from sex workers to alleged terrorists; birth, death and every momentous occasion in between – but her technique typically does not seem up to the task of supporting the thematic gravitas. With her ink wash and watercolour drawings in particular, where these media soak and bleed into the paper, emotionally charged topics seem oddly drained of feeling while the explicitly sexual subjects become unabashed exercises in prurience.Dumas can also be frustratingly ambiguous. Barbie (1997), for instance, looks either like she has a nylon stocking pulled over her head, bank robber-style (one of the few careers the Mattel company doll has not tried out during her 50 glamorous years), or that her skin has tightened with the contracture scarring typical of burn victims (an impossibility, given that she’s made from plastic). What, exactly, is the point?Dumas invites comparison with two influential American painters who pack considerably more punch. She is renowned for working from her archive of photographs, selections from the art historical canon, and found imagery drawn from fashion to celebrities to the news. But Leon Golub (1922-2004) shared the same magpie quality, in particular amassing material that captured the violent suppression of people around the globe. The massive canvases that he based on such representations exhaust audiences: even though we can never be exactly sure where in the world the action is taking place, Golub presented the perpetrator as well as the victim of brutality – putting flesh onto what Foucault, in his 1980 book The History of Sexuality, so notably characterised as “perpetual spirals of power and pleasure”. Dumas, on the contrary, detaches her subjects from any external referent. What’s more, Golub thickly slathered paint onto his canvases and then methodically scraped it off in parts. This substantiality, and the physical exertion it took to reach the desired effect, was an ideal analogue to the weightiness of what he depicted.Alice Neel (1900-1984) trolled a social terrain populated by many of the same sorts of people that Dumas depicts: monstrous-looking babies and women bloated with pregnancy, celebrities, corpses and outcasts. But Neel’s portraits plumb through layers of personality and sear themselves into the viewer’s mind. The ghastly commotion in a “well baby clinic”; the pathetic unsightliness of Andy Warhol’s half-bared body; the deranged raconteur Joe Gould fantasmagorically bedecked with three full sets of genitalia, cascading downward from his navel; and Neel’s own unflinching nude self-portrait at age 80, the free-spirited bohemian decked out with only eyeglasses, a paintbrush and rag as counterpoints to her distended belly and drooping breasts – each of these finely observed portrayals is haunting and unforgettable. (Dumas’s 1984 self-portrait Het Kwaad is Banaal (“Evil is Banal”) comes closest to possessing such a dead-on, arresting character.)This exhibition was loosely organized, which led me to imagine myself as a guest curator imposing order upon the expansive display. To that end I mentally constructed a flipbook from a small selection of her oil paintings, emphasising their strong gestural qualities. I opened with Straitjacket (1993) where an erect, inert figure is viewed from behind, striking a pose while tightly cosseted. This could as likely represent a brief pause on a fashion runway as a terrifying mode of restraint. Anonymous (2005) is based upon a notorious photograph of the abuse committed at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison: here an unidentified figure stands with head bowed and arms outstretched; the canvas cannot contain its reach. S/he wears a floor-length, tunic-like garment befitting a circus performer, or a religious devotee. And is that a headband or a blindfold? In Give the People What They Want (1992) a woman flings open a cloth drape to reveal her naked body, doing so with a sense of detachment and world-weariness. Yet while she looks like a preternaturally jaded adolescent, she also bears an uncanny resemblance to Jackie Kennedy. And Measuring Your Own Grave (2003), the eponymous painting of this show, foregrounds another person of indistinct gender, this time bending at the waist so that its face stares at the floor. Is he or she bowing to accolades or bowing out? Individually, too much is left unstated. Collectively, we watch a pageant of human activity reduced to its mechanics; the meaning, however, is slippery at best.The highlight of the show, for me, was an assortment of ten small works clustered on one wall. It was easy to miss, overshadowed because it diverged so radically from the scale of much of this exhibition (Dumas’s Magdalenas tower up to 300cm; the largest of the lithographs, oils, and ink drawings in this grouping was only 40 x 30cm). There was humour: An African Mickey Mouse (1991) and Sketch for a Monument of Peace (1993), where two figures hail an out-of-scale male organ. Sardonic surprise: on an initial glance, Girl with Head (1992) looks like a child cuddling a beloved pet. And Not From Here (1994), a miniature version of a painting of Dumas’s daughter that was also included in the show; this rendition allows you to intensely contemplate the creepy presence of this child-creature, whose tiny form threatens to lurch out at you. This selection uniquely pulsated with creative energy. But all too often Dumas’s work seems to be purposively facile. The catalogue features a bit of her poetry, such as these lines from Expiration dates: “12 September 1977: Steve Biko died in South African police custody/ 12 September 2007: My mother died after noon.” Trite equivalences such as these distract from much of her painting as well. Her words become a provocation to paraphrase government minister Jimmy Kruger’s heartless declaration after being informed about the death of the famed black consciousness leader: in the final analysis, Dumas’s work leaves me cold.Steven C. Dubin is Professor of Arts Administration at Teachers College, Columbia University, New York City. His Mounting Queen Victoria: Transforming Museums in a Democratic South Africa is being reissued by Jacana