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.
The exhibition takes its title, “Measuring Your Own Grave,” from a 2008 painting split horizontally between a dark top half and a light bottom half. Just above center, we see a figure — a man in suspenders or a woman in spaghetti straps — as if viewed from overhead as he/she sits, legs out in front, perilously on the edge of the dark, rectangular void, stretching out arms to measure its length. But the picture also flips, with the bottom half of the canvas becoming a ground plane upon which the figure stands, bent over toward us at the waist. It’s a fine mix of reference, device and style — part Degas dancer, part Manet actor, part Motherwell abstraction. Composition and narrative fuse brilliantly as two states of being and two states of mind are presented in the same image — a figure solitarily pondering the pragmatics and metaphysics of mortality, and a figure taking a bow on life’s stage while mooning the darkness.
I couldn’t stop thinking about the first-century Greek sculpture known as the Laocoön Group, with its central figure’s writhing body and strangely detached facial expression, while I looked at photos of pole dancers by Philip-Lorca diCorcia, presently on view in a small survey of the artist’s work organized by Charlotte Cotton, LACMA’s curator of photography. The images, from diCorcia’s 2004 Lucky 13 series, show ladies named Hannah, Asia, Tennille, Amber and Heema, caught by the shutter, often upside down, in displays of gravity-defying gymnastics. But these are not action shots. The women are holding poses for the camera, and the clubs they inhabit are emptied of customers, becoming studio backdrops. The bodies and faces are oddly separate, the limbs and torsos eliciting a combination of arousal, empathy and wonder — present in a way that can make you blush — while the faces vary between pandering, and mostly vacancy, and perhaps even distant reverie. The upside-downness of some make the faces appear only more removed. In the case of Tennille, looking into her eyes is like looking into the hollowed-out pupils of a statue. The images also toy with conventions and limitations of media and genre — documentary, action, portrait and “glamour” photography, as well as Baroque painting, from which the pictures borrow their lighting, and the more dramatic of Hellenistic and Baroque sculpture. In fact, the photos are more akin to sculpture — literally and metaphorically — as they deal in the very problem of trying to capture in static form (in this case the actual posed bodies) a sense of moment and movement in space and time, and, in a kind of reverse and perverse Pygmalion plot, in converting people into statues in a context wherein objectification is a given. The photos also offer an uncanny blend of palpable naturalism (flexing flesh on film) with a high degree of theatricality.
The Lucky 13 photos, and the complexities and problematics accompanying them, exemplify diCorcia’s practice, which bridges the street-photography approaches of William Eggleston or Miguel Rio Branco and the work of artists like Jeff Wall or Cindy Sherman, who more overtly stage their photos and tinker with the conventions of photography and cinema. Such uncomfortable play is found as well in diCorcia’s Hustlers series (1990-92), for which he selected and prepped locations in Hollywood (diners, motel rooms, parking lots) and then trolled the neighborhood for mostly male prostitutes he then cast as themselves in settings that were, in a sense, their scene.
For the Streetwork series (1993-98), diCorcia lay in wait with a tripod-mounted camera and flash on city streets, snaring passersby, from beggars to corporate types, as they went about their business — most of them too consumed with their thoughts and routines to look toward the camera before becoming instantly cast players. And for his Heads series (2001-03), diCorcia went from trapper to sniper, setting up remotely controlled strobes and lurking at a distance with long lenses to shoot subjects unaware of his position. In so doing, diCorcia caught their private expressions up close — flash-illuminated as their ambiently lit surroundings dropped away in relative darkness — with a resulting sense of conflated intimacy and intrusion.
On view for the first time at LACMA is Thousand, a 2007 work comprising 1,000 Polaroids shot by diCorcia, often dovetailing with his series of larger photos, but fleshing out a broader range of both subject matter and approach. In general, these seem quicker, cruder and, in instances, mundane. In recorded comments that play over a projection of images from the project, and which accompany the actual presentation of the 1,000 small photos, diCorcia speaks of an interest in the possibility that these photos risk being underwhelming, but as a collection, they raise the clamor of what diCorcia’s larger images announce: the complexity, even conflictedness, and perhaps the combined curiosity and addiction of the photographer as producer/consumer in the theater of the everyday.
MARLENE DUMAS: MEASURING YOUR OWN GRAVE | MOCA, 250 S. Grand Ave., L.A. | Mon. & Fri., 11 a.m.-5 p.m., Thurs., 11 a.m.-8 p.m., Sat., 11 a.m.-6 p.m. | Through Sept. 22 | (213) 626-6222 or www.moca.org
PHILIP-LORCA DICORCIA | LACMA, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., L.A. | Mon., Tues. & Thurs., noon-8 p.m.; Fri., noon-9 p.m.; Sat. & Sun., 11 a.m.-8 p.m. | Through Sept. 14 | (323) 857-6000 or www.lacma.org