Marlene Dumas at the MoMA

The Museum of Modern Art presents Measuring Your Own Grave, a retrospective of South African painter Marlene Dumas. The dark expressive paintings present intimacy in a raw crude way. From the diversity of people, races, expressions, and faces comes naked bent over figures, massive over sized babies, and highlights of colour dotted throughout a predominantly dark show. Dumas is asking questions of gender, identity, race, religion, and sexuality. The viewer is challenged, as indicated by the title, how deeply do you want to plunge into this darkness?

I was first introduced to Dumas’ work in 2002, at the New Museum of Contemporary Art show Marlene Dumas’ First Drawing Retrospective. Mostly black ink on paper portraits, the walls were grids of gestural blurs and watery streaks which created intensely focused faces. The series Models and Jesus Serene, I was struck by the profound expressiveness Dumas achieved with such little technical articulation. Dumas plays on subversive means of expression; the interplay between tension, joy, desire, thought, the ambiguous, the anonymous, and the relationships of reaction and interpretation.

For Measuring Your Own Grave the paintings are shown grouped thematically rather than chronologically. I broke the show down into six prominent themes. Early colour portraits circa 1985, babies circa 1990, faces circa 1994, naked paintings circa 1999, soft close ups circa 2003, and finally the newer works of articulated portraits. Not that every retrospective should be chronological, but the dispersion of these themes dilutes the cohesiveness of these already challenging works. The viewer’s attention is distracted and jolted from painting to painting.

In one particular room hung Male Beauty, a water colour on paper of a nude male viewed from the back with exposed genitals, The Shrimp and Miss Pompadour, both paintings of women bent over with exposed buttocks and genitals, and finally The Kiss (2003) an intimate vulnerable downward face kissing with closed eyes. The juxtaposition narrates that not all naked and not all erotic is necessarily pornographic. The Kiss, as soft visually as emotionally, was lost amongst these naked bodies, obvious by one disgruntled visitor who belted out “It not that they are erotic, they are just not appealing.” Just as the life sized gentle portraits of Helena were hung opposite the over sized unsettling contorted babies. It was more the juxtaposition that was just not appealing.

The painting that struck me as the most explicative of Dumas oeuvre is the painting Evil is Banal. An early work from 1984 this large (possible self-portrait) portrait tightly focuses upon a pensive female face with wild orange hair, her head posed on her folded hand. The title does not relate directly to the image, it is more about the cerebral notion of banality, of our psychological conceptions of evil, of what and how we think and how this individual interpretation translates onto facial expressions and emotions. Similarly, upon one large wall hung six paintings, each painted during different years with different subjects and varied stylistic treatment. Dumas’ masterful use of black as the principle palette and use of colour to highlight cheeks, foreheads, and jaw lines, gives the emotional integrity and subtly provocative nature of these large stunning portraits, especially White Disease, The Believer, The Pilgrim.

For my second plunge into Marlene Dumas’ dark portraits, I have defiantly dug deep. I encourage viewers of this show to look at these portraits with the same focus and determination as these portraits are looking back at you with.

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