Do you think you could enjoy seeing paintings that poke you in the eye, make you sick to your stomach and – as if that's not enough – violate your sense of decency and propriety? But wait a minute...I forgot to mention that these paintings also have an explosive raw energy, frightening authenticity, and the violent brushwork of a drunken samurai wielding his sword right and left.
The works I'm talking about are mostly portraits, with the figure placed front and center: naked children, naked women, blindfolded men, hanged women, men and women in sexually explicit poses. I could continue, but I think you get the picture. The artist undeniably has the courage and conviction to go where angels fear to tread. And it might come as a surprise to find out that these tough, brooding images are painted not by some macho guy, but by a pleasantly plump, middle-aged woman with a mop of curly blond hair.
But don't be fooled by this appearance; born in South Africa but living for the last thirty years in Amsterdam, Marlene Dumas is a force to be reckoned with, both as an artist and as a person. She is one of the most acclaimed and sought-after artists of her generation, whose paintings command millions of dollars at auction sales. When she speaks, as she did last Sunday at MOCA in connection with the opening of her solo show there, she follows her own rules. There is no linear development to her stories; she begins with a verbal salvo, interrupts herself with a sudden thought, then proceeds in fits and starts – all that with contagious enthusiasm.
Marlene Dumas hates to travel, but for this, her first big museum exhibition in the United States, she made an exception. Organized by MOCA in collaboration with the Museum of Modern Art in New York, this exhibition wins you over not only with curatorial smarts but also with intriguing choices that the artist made in hanging her works in a rather idiosyncratic fashion: well-spaced in one room only to follow with a cluster of works in another, avoiding the traditional eye-level placement, dancing instead up and down gallery walls.
Most of her portraits are painted from photographic materials she's been collecting all her life: personal snapshots, newspaper and magazine photos of crime scenes and murder victims, mug shots of petty criminals and suspected terrorists. Brace yourself for the portrait of a dead Marilyn Monroe. Those who are still alive stare at you without smiling, their silence, their stillness, are oppressively palpable. What amazes me is that Marlene Dumas makes not the slightest attempt to ingratiate herself to the viewer; her palette is somber, the subject is tough, and there is always the smell of blood in the air. She leaves it to Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst to seduce the public with shiny metal sculptural baubles or colorful paintings made out of thousands of real butterflies. Her inspiration comes from Goya's Disasters of War, the unflinching photographs of Diane Arbus, and in-your-face portraits by Alice Neel.
The cumulative effect of this exhibition on the viewer is an acute awareness of one's mortality, a fact that we Americans would rather not deal with. Marlene Dumas' powerful and eloquent art repudiates premature statements made by some art authorities about the demise of painting as the primary medium of artistic expression in the 21st century. As long as we are able to evoke the image of the Shroud of Turin and the Veil of Saint Veronica, painting will remain with us.
Marlene Dumas: Measuring Your Own Grave On view at MOCA Grand Avenue through September 22, 2008
Banner image: Marlene Dumas, The Blindfolded, 2002; Oil on canvas, 3 panels; 51.18 x 43.31 inches (each), 130 x 110 cm; © 2002 Marlene Dumas