Marlene Dumas is as much a stirrer of primordial soup and human emotions as she is a painter, and one of the ways the South African–born, Amsterdam-based artist gets down into the mess of all that soup is via the act of painting itself. As is evident in her work in watercolor, ink and what seem like rather watered-down acrylic and gouache on paper, as well as the more thinned-out and washy of her oils, her approach is most effective at its most fluid. The various directional flows and dispersals of pigment in liquid suggest the essence of an existence that is transitory, and speak to that part of us that variously fears, knows or denies the reality of human life as millions of upright-walking sacks of common chemical elements mixed with a bunch of water and charged with some kind of unexplained life spark. The strongest of Dumas’ paintings make you wonder and worry about your own stability and containment because they reveal how they flooded and gushed into existence, and they have the feeling that it all might run off the edge of the canvas again. The paintings themselves seem little more than a few elements and fluids and a similarly unexplainable spark. Flux and flow become method and metaphor.
Dumas is now enjoying her first U.S. midcareer survey at MOCA, in an exhibition organized by Connie Butler, formerly a MOCA curator and now a MOCA curatorial fellow and chief curator of drawings at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. A double-sided offer of pleasure and disturbance in viewing this show comes from how Dumas balances specificity and fidelity as a picture maker with looseness and liberty as a painter. Initially, her paintings often seem highly generalized, with faces and figures at times reduced to little more than a few loose strokes. Such can be both comforting and distancing, but when you run across a collection of faces hung together in a grid, you realize that what seems generalization is actually distillation resulting in highly individualized visages. Dumas picks up key traits and exploits them — harnessing the talents and tricks of the caricaturist in service of the expressionist. Color figures prominently as well. One moment, her use of color is a matter of chromatic play in the tradition of Matisse; the next, it isn’t a matter of play at all but an articulation of disease, decay or inner turmoil. White becomes pale; orange becomes heat or fever; blue becomes chill — psychic or physical.
Dumas deals heavily in big subjects — loss of innocence, cruelty, decrepitude, exploitation, death. And she borrows from both the lighter and darker sides of the everyday image bank — childhood snapshots, news photos, smut. Often, the imagery is frank and explicit —bent-over strippers, Marilyn Monroe’s autopsy photo, a young lad with a hard-on, blindfolded detainees, aging faces, the dead Christ. In these more straightforward images, with the figures often pitted against simple, voidish backgrounds, Dumas deals her hand through the simple construction of the painting. Like Francis Bacon, who was a very different painter from Dumas — more violent in both imagery and effect — but who nonetheless is her kin, Dumas is capable of rendering even the darkest of images, via the handling of her medium, with a kind of sideways exuberance, a tarnished joie de vivre.
Elsewhere, she builds more complicated narratives and metaphors. Among the most compelling of these is The Painter (1994), an image of a naked young girl with paint-slathered hands. Her face is pasty white, her limbs warm and fleshy, her abdomen a pale blue, and her hands midnight blue and crimson. The painting is partly a capturing of childhood creativity, but it also hints at something gone or going wrong, outwardly or inwardly. And it’s hard not to see in this painting an allusion to Macbeth, or a more general idea of someone with bloodied hands. Name No Names (2005), a small work on paper, depicts a naked blonde, her back turned to the viewer, facing three suited male interrogators. The work is rendered entirely in brushed ink, save for the woman’s hair, which is a few daubs of metallic-gold acrylic paint. It is perhaps a specific allusion to Marilyn Monroe, who in both life and death preoccupies Dumas, but is also a more open and rich metaphor for the exchange of power and information, truth and trust, between the sexes: Like several other of Dumas’ paintings, it smartly plays upon the popular Renaissance and Baroque theme of Susanna and the Elders.