I always thought Osama Bin Laden had strangely kind eyes. At least that's how he looks in photographs, and that's how he looks in The Pilgrim (2006), a portrait by Marlene Dumas. Dumas has painted an "evil-doer," not sympathetically but just as she paints everyone else, without judgment and with an eye for the strangeness inherent in all humans. In Dumas's world, an image of a squiggling, awkward newborn feels as unsettling as an image of a fanatic. The Bin Laden portrait is part of Dumas's mid-career retrospective at The Menil Collection, "Measuring Your Own Grave."
Virtually all of Dumas's images are painted from photographs, most all of them shot by someone else. She collects them from a variety of sources — porn, newspapers, old class photos, fashion magazines; she has hundreds of them stored in binders. Sampling the human condition like some sociological researcher from another planet, she looks at people objectively, without sentiment, without preconception. Her paintings, particularly the later ones, are loosely done. With thin layers and washes of paint on canvas and watercolor on paper, every painting feels like a risk, a one-shot deal that could go terribly wrong. But her work never seems facilely executed, even when it has the simplest imagery.
Dumas was born in South Africa in 1953 and grew up under apartheid. She received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the University of Cape Town and then, in 1976, left South Africa for Amsterdam, where she studied psychology. And although it's hokey amateur psychology to explore someone's childhood in an attempt to understand why they paint the way they do, I'll wager that living under the apartheid system shaped her approach to her subjects. Widespread and institutionalized oppression taints everyone, even "good" people, and makes it a lot harder to make simplistic good-bad judgments. Dumas's work acknowledges the complexity of people. Osama bin Laden, with his kind eyes, may be a mass-murder mastermind, but he might also be a loving father.
Because her art is dark, grayed-out and anything but comforting, one might expect it to be created by some wan, introverted misanthrope. But Dumas is blond, laughing, witty and downright bubbly, an attractive, zaftig fiftysomething. But she has the matter-of-fact pragmatism of her Dutch ancestry and her adopted homeland. Talking about a painting of a corpse, she says, "Well, I'm sorry to say, but we all die." But she smiles and sounds apologetic that she has to deliver this bad news to us.
Dumas is the mother of a daughter, and any mother with a grain of objectivity can relate to the artist's giant images of infants, The First People (I-IV) (1990). Four canvases hang in a row, each nearly six feet tall. There is nothing saccharine or sentimental here. The newborns are strange, gangly, big-headed and disconcerting. Their fists are clenched, their big-bellied, skinny-legged bodies newly uncurled. Twisted and contorted, they are startled and unsure of how to hold themselves, no longer tightly folded in a fetal position and enveloped by a warm, dark womb.
Unsentimental ambiguity continues in The Painter (1994), an image of Dumas's daughter as a young child. The figure of a girl is sketched onto a tall vertical canvas, her body loosely modeled, with her torso toned a sickly blue and her hands covered with paint — one the purply-blue color of a bruise, the other a dark, visceral red. Her features are sparingly delineated, with dark eyes, a bit of shadow under the nose and a wavy, horizontal hint of a mouth forming an expression that could be either pouty or demonic. She's either peeved because she had to stop fingerpainting, or she's just butchered her family and is coming after you. It could go either way.
Dumas's paintings based on pornography cause a lot of talk. D-rection (1999) shows a man with a big, erect, purple penis. Fingers (1999) depicts a woman bent over and seen from behind, her hand reaching between her legs to grasp herself. But they are painted the way Dumas paints everything else. The artist's attitude toward pornography seems to be similar to the view common in her adopted country. The Netherlands is often seen as some giant den of iniquity by travelers who hit the coffee shops or the brothels on Warmoestraat, but the Dutch aren't any more licentious than anybody else — they're just pragmatic about it. If people are going to do drugs and pay other people to have sex with them, why not make it as safely regulated as possible? In Dumas's work, sex is just as much a part of life as death and class photos.
Dumas may not be interested in "morality," but there is a concern for moral justice that runs through the work. Her painting The Woman of Algiers (2001) is based on a 1960 photograph of an event from the Algerian Civil War, reproduced in a Dutch newspaper in 2001. Two men hold the wrists of a very young nude woman, displaying her to the camera. The Dutch newspaper printed black bars over the breasts and crotch of the young woman, and Dumas has painted them as thick slabs that pin down the otherwise brushy image. We don't know who the men are who restrain her; only their arms are visible. We do not clearly see the woman, but the artist does not paint her as a pathetic victim. She refuses to stoop to obvious visual polemics. The woman confronts the camera with a neutrality that makes judgment the viewer's responsibility. Dumas won't do it for us.
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