Marlene Dumas, Dead Marilyn, 2008; oil on canvas; 15 ¾ x 19 11⁄16 inches; Private Collection, New York; © 2008 Marlene Dumas
The Blindfolded Man, 2007; oil on canvas; 39 ³⁄8 x 35 7⁄16 inches; The Rachofsky Collection, Dallas; promised gift to the Dallas Museum of Art
Determining the distinction between the beautiful and the perverse can be an exercise in futility. It often results in developing a broad-stroked gestalt that does more to obfuscate than clarify. More often than not, it is the subtle details rather than the content of a disturbing work of art that inflame people’s moral sensibilities. But this is exactly what makes good art—the ineffable yet defining characteristics of a body of work that make an artist important. Much like Justice Potter Stewart’s “I know it when I see it” non-definition of pornography, placing a finger on what makes art great can prove just as personal.
Marlene Dumas has made a career out of exploring this uncomfortable and confounding space. Her recent survey, Measuring Your Own Grave at the Menil Collection, presents some of the most beautiful figurative paintings created in recent years. It also displays an unctuous attitude that confronts the viewer with the base elements of existence. The rich and sometimes seedy pageantry of life is personalized by Dumas’ unflinching eye. The results will no doubt repel some, especially in moments that depict youth in a jaded if not salacious manner, but the overall mystique of the work trumps naysayers or those of a prudish nature.
The show itself encompasses the entire human life cycle, highlighting controversial forms of human expression throughout. Hung in separate rooms, paintings about birth/infancy, sexuality/voyeurism and, finally, death and the besotted corpse make viewing the exhibition something like a secular pilgrimage. In The Painter, a gargantuan infant with an adultlike aura confronts the viewer with pigment-stained hands, as if to personify nascent artistic expression, its power and destructive potential.
The Secret depicts a similar man-child from behind, but its disparate proportions are far more disturbing. Yet Dumas’ light brushstrokes and stain-heavy applications lend an air of freshness that promotes reverence of the subject matter rather than a moribund leer. These aspects carry over to overtly profane works such as Fingers and Dorothy D-Lite, which both confront the viewer with a Weimar-like sense of the burlesque, exploring a naughty adolescent sexuality that celebrates the exhibitionist nature of art in general. More fluid than Egon Schiele’s loaded nudes, Dumas’ subjects are comfortable in their own skin. Her models seem to be enjoying the attention being paid to their hedonism. This sentiment is over the top in Give the People What They Want, which depicts a prepubescent girl coyly displaying her body. Although the painting is rendered in a blunt and clunky manner, the child’s gaze penetrates the viewer all the same, and one sincerely wonders if a taboo has been breached.
A few misses include paintings that reference iconic nudes, including works by Manet and Reinhardt. The historical reference feels forced. Dumas is such a good painter that it is a shame she felt the need to venture out of her uniquely peopled world to reinterpret the work of others. They may be meant as a feminist reassertion of the canon, but they feel like a postmodern footnote in an otherwise exquisite exhibition.
Garland Fielder is an artist and writer living in Houston.