Thursday, February 26, 2009

MOMA/ Marlene Dumas Dec 14-Feb 16

While Ms Dumas has become quite well known in Europe and is seen as an important painter This is the first major US exhibit of the artists work. I'd heard a good deal about her and I've seen individual pieces in person and even more in reproduction, but I'd never seen an actual exhibition of her work before. After seeing room after room of her paintings and drawings I have to say I really don't get what all the fuss is about.

The curator decided to hang this show according to theme as opposed to chronology , which I usually think is a bad idea, but in this case the artists work has changed so little over the twenty-some years the show covers that it doesn't seem to make any difference. She has a very distinctive style, where she uses thin stains of paint complimented with thicker dry brush marks. She also likes to place pale white figures against dark black backgrounds, or dark black figures against white grounds. These are fairly unoriginal stylistic decisions she seems to have arrived at early on, and never deviated from.

The human figure is really the primary focus of her work, usually the female figure, but there are also a lot of babies and a few men (usually being tortured). There's also a lot of nudity, with a lot of violent and sexually charged images that can only be described as superficially expressive. Even more so are her titles. One example is a 1995 painting of a nude middle aged woman entitled "Magdalena (out of eggs out of business)". Like her paintings, it's not subtle but not very powerful or thought provoking either. Her compositions are oddly cramped and centralized, I guess to show the body as an unnaturally compressed or repressed entity. The faces are frequently flattened out, with mask like distortions. Her ink drawings are better because she doesn't have to deal with color (which isn't her strong suit), and the bodies become runny improvisational puddles of ink on the white paper.

The whole "body politics" issue and how it relates to painting is something that's been handled much better in the past. I'm reminded of Francisco Clement, or Francis Bacon, or even John Currin who are/were much better painters than Ms Dumas, and whose work isn't weighted down with all her tired feminist baggage.

If she were a 20 or 30 something year old artist having her first solo show I wouldn't be as critical of her work, but she isn't. I kept thinking as I walked through the galleries of the potential behind what she was doing. Maybe if she more directly addressed the history of how women and women's bodies have been depicted in painting, or if her depiction's of them were more original or idiosyncratic, or if there were some evocative narrative between the bodies then the work might be more interesting. These are issues she's going to have to deal with as an artist, but she's going to have to get past her complacency as a painter first.

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