Before the New York Studio Program moved from Lower Manhattan to DUMBO, art students there used to gaze from their studios into the apartment painter Carroll Dunham shared with his wife, photo artist Laurie Simmons. Sometimes they could watch the two eating dinner. Maybe they could see the artists' daughters — Lena Dunham, who now, years later, co-writes and stars in HBO's new series Girls, and her younger sister, Grace Dunham — but the daughters don't factor into stories I've heard. Even Simmons, who has exhibited her smart photographs of paper dolls, sex dolls and dioramas in New York since 1980, barely warrants mention.
Seeing Carroll Dunham was the coup, which makes sense. For college-age artists trekking through art's past in hopes of finding out what it means to be of the present, he's an attractive pit stop. He's the solitary, obsessive artist who kept painting even after painting had begun to seem passé, who gravitates, as if unable to help himself, toward crude, adolescent, sexual imagery — his figures have penis-shaped noses, exposed assholes, caricatured breasts, often painted in cartoonish colors. Yet he has the confident hand and compositional savvy of an abstract expressionist, so everything he does, no matter how disturbing, feels serious.
A mini-retrospective of Dunham's drawings opened at Blum & Poe gallery in Culver City just a week after his daughter's show Girls debuted on HBO, and runs through May 26.
The work in the exhibition ranges from 1982, when he first began folding cartoonish, abject figures into his abstractions, up to today. Some of the funniest drawings are from the 1990s, like an untitled sketch from 1993, where a small intestine-like thing that's shaped like a gun drips down into a bigger intestine-like thing. In another, Sketches for The Alienist from 1997, an angry-looking man is inside a house that's the same shape as the man's head. Handwritten text above says, “He dedicated himself to the study and healing of himself,” but given the man's scowl, the self-study and healing must be going badly.
A series of drawings from the last few years are more squirm-inducing. In them, a naked woman, sometimes seen bent over or sprawled from behind, drags her way through a barren landscape. (If you Google “bent over lady, painting,” the first hit is a reference to Dunham, the second a bank of erotic photos.) The woman's breasts are sometimes flattened out at the side and she has very wiry black hair. Her orifices are pink and exposed, and a curator who visited the exhibition called its last room “the hole room,” where there was just “no escape.”
It's not really the subject matter or style of the drawings that cause the squirming. It's the obsessiveness. He has drawn so, so many of versions of the woman that he seems unable to stop making everyone uncomfortable.
Maybe it isn't fair to compare Dunham with his daughter, the filmmaker, writer and new TV sensation. They come from different generations, work in different media and are admirably restrained when speaking about each other in interviews, if they mention each other at all. But like her father, Lena also seems unable to stop making everyone uncomfortable.
Part of what's both compelling and really hard to watch about her writing and performance in HBO's Girls, about a group of fairly self-absorbed, just-out-of-college women navigating New York, is how she always pushes a bit too far. In episode two, Hannah, the character Lena plays, makes a rape joke in a job interview; in episode five, she drags out the interaction for far too long when she walks in on her sort-of boyfriend masturbating.
Both artists seem unafraid to create work about our inner sexual fantasies. But the degree to which they implicate themselves in the work differs dramatically. “I don't choose to over-analyze my relationship to these images,” said Carroll Dunham after a recent lecture at NYU's Institute of Fine Arts, speaking specifically about the impulses behind the naked woman drawings, “because, if I do, it makes me self-conscious.”
In a recent interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air, Lena Dunham remembered how her dad had always wanted artists he taught to wait until after grad school to exhibit their work. They needed time for private experimentation, but she's never had that kind of time. “Bad poetry I wrote in high school is on the Internet,” she says, and each character she creates, while not her, resembles her. She knows viewers of Girls will assume Hannah's insecurities somehow reflect her own, but she still doesn't spare Hannah embarrassment. In episode four, Hannah confronts her boss, who has been making sexual advances, and suggests they just have sex and get it over with. He's appalled at her forwardness, and she's confused. She thinks she's assessed the situation and taken the bull by the horns, but actually she's made a bigger mess.
Is the Carroll Dunham approach to impulse without second-guessing any bolder or braver than the Lena Dunham approach, where your artistry is wrapped in your biography, and comes with self-questioning? Is the Lena Dunham approach more honest? Probably not, but thinking about them together feels helpful somehow, like their genetic link makes it even more apparent than it already is that boundaries have changed over the past few decades. Expression with limited self-exposure feels right for a painter who went to school in the '70s, while expression that goes hand-in-hand with self-conscious self-exposure seems right for an artist who went to school in the '00s and debuted her work on YouTube.
In the future, if a group of art students covertly watch Lena Dunham eating dinner, I imagine the thrill will come from seeing “the real” version of what they've already seen on film and TV. Spying on Carroll Dunham felt like breaking into an intensely private space he's carefully protected.