Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Dumas Review

Dumas again. I am not quite finnished with her work and I don't think it is because I have succumbed to the myth and intrigue that that surrounds a "famous" artist. I like to think that I am able to make a distinction between hype and authentic value. Anyway - as per usual - there were many observations about her work that was absent from my review of Intimate Relations in The Sunday Independent. Although Dumas told me during a interview that she was fascinated by the manner in which film (and actors) create the illusion that the protagonists are directly engaging with their audience, this aspect to her work came more clearly into focus at the exhibition. It initially came to my attention while watching a documentary on Dumas at the exhibition in which she articulates the idea that reality is not her source; that is was cinematic renditions of reality that initially inspired her. That she continues to work from Polaroids and images from popular culture further suggests that it is a mediation of reality that interests her.
Painting is always assumed to be the "mediated" version of reality, but Dumas employs it rather as a medium to mediate other mediated realities. So it is no longer the source of reality that is of significance but rather how our relationship to "the source" is obfuscated and warped through various sets of filters engineered to maintain the status quo or to challenge the norm as Dumas attempts. It light of this it makes sense that Dumas would not use a live model as her source, I think that she is intrigued by this idea of a subject that engages with a viewer that is not present. This idea intrigues me too, for it implies the degree to which we all subject to self-censorship; although we are not being watched we act as if we are even when we are alone.
These are just some of the ideas that were missing from my review. Under increasing pressure to write more populist art reviews, in my Sunday Independent review below, I tried to shift the focus to another aspect of Dumas' art which I believe makes her art "accessible" to the broader public. Of course, by the end of the review I found that I could not completely disentangle the intellectual value of her work from its aesthetics.

Marlene Dumas’ paintings challenge the mode in which we consume art. It is easy to get swept up by the cerebral pleasures that contemporary art offers, only savouring the physical dimensions that further concepts. It has a tendency to function as a conduit for ideas rather than being a purely aesthetic adventure for spectators and the slick multi-media mediums that contemporary artists employ often removes the sensual dimensions that were once integral to the art object.

However, it is the visual or corporeal characteristics of Dumas’ art that provides a point of entry. While her art is irretrievably rooted in a complex matrix of concepts that are tethered to gender politics and the art of representation, it also comprises a seductive dimension that stimulates more than just the intellect. The visual drama of her art is a consequence of her medium; painting. Dumas has denied claims that she has reinvigorated painting but her art does prove that painting is still a relevant if not potent medium.

At the opening of her exhibition – her first solo showing in her country of birth – Emma Bedford, the curator, highlighted the physicality of Dumas work, suggesting that the tactile nature of art is rarely prized by South Africa’s art intelligentsia. Consumed by the political and ideological facets of contemporary art, she implied that our art world – and, perhaps, our society – has desisted from surrendering to this almost primal feature of art. Bedford has a point and given the intellectual gymnastics required to decipher much contemporary art, what she proposes offers a fairly liberating approach to reading art.

It especially resonates when you are standing in front of one of Dumas’ rich portraits and are yearning to surrender to its aesthetics rather than intellectualising its themes. Glorious Venice (1985), for example, is painfully exquisite. You have to fight the urge to stroke the canvas, touching the subject’s delicious, pouty ruby lips and her silky skin. Similarly, you feel compelled to swim in the conflation of azure and iridescent mauve tones that bring her semi-nude form to life.

With an innate grasp of the dynamics of seduction, Dumas is deft at enticing her audience with imagery, however - and herein lies the rub - she is also incredibly skilled at reminding us about the mechanics of seduction. This makes her audience acutely self-conscious about their relationship to her subjects, rendering it near impossible to simply revel in the painting’s surface embellishments. Duma’s art suggests that the act of admiring or consuming “the other” is intrinsically burdened by emotional and societal baggage, which gnaws at the viewer, creating tension and setting a mood of discomfort that cannot be casually forgotten. The female subject in Glorious Venice is obviously and purposively presented as a sensual creature but at the same time there is an awkwardness about her stance and her body that suggests she trying to resist her subject status, thereby avoiding the viewer’s gaze. However, there are also indications that she has chosen to display herself, so it is almost as if she wants to be noticed, she needs that attention. Amid this indecision it also becomes apparent that her behaviour is part of an involuntary charade that has been embedded in her psyche. So, just as her hands cup her breasts in an effort to conceal them, she could also be propping them up to show them up at their best. Much of Dumas’ art features unruly subjects, women who are simultaneously willing and unwilling prey of the viewers’ ever penetrative stare. In Misinterpreted (1988) a woman lifts her skirt back to reveal a triangle of her white knickers. One’s gaze is automatically drawn to this intimate part that she is revealing – isn’t she offering it to one? However, as one moves one’s gaze up the pictorial plane, one notices that Dumas’ subject is watching, creating a vicious cycle in which the watched is watching the watcher, thereby engendering a role reversal in which the viewer becomes the subject. It’s an ambiguous relationship, a stalemate in which neither party is able to get the upper hand.

This brand of ambiguity is a defining characteristic of Dumas’ art and one can’t help feeling that it is driven by more than stereotypical observations about gender. As the title of the exhibition implies, Dumas is interested in the ambiguous relationship between the self and the other and the constant level of negotiation between the private and the public. It is no coincidence that Dumas has employed the female nude to articulate these concepts, by sourcing iconography from art’s canon and popular culture she is able to demonstrate that the conflict between the private and the public is determined by external paradigms. That she gets to undermine the tradition of the female nude, a cornerstone of art’s canon, and carve out a place in art history for herself is just a bonus.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Marlene Dumas in Jozi


This was the week that the Dumas circus rolled into town and the media bandwagon jumped in head long, kicking up hype. On Tuesday Dumas gave a walkabout tour of her exhibition at The Standard Bank gallery during the press preview of the show. Having already interviewed her over the phone before Intimate Relations opened in Cape Town last year I had good grasp on Dumas, but it was nevertheless rewarding to see her in person. The voice that I bonded with over the phone from Amsterdam was easily reconciled with her physical presence; warm, reflective, playful and unpretentious that appears to be her character in broad brushstrokes as one watching from afar. Like most famous folk I think Dumas struggles with the public pesona that is ascribed to her. She loathes not being able to control what is said and written about her work. At the conclusion of the walkabout she looked out at the sea of faces - all media - sizing her up her and no doubt shuddered at the thought of what their conception of her and her work might be. "Please don't put words in my mouth," she urged. She should know better. It is not the words or quotes that misrepresent public personas it is the details and discreet observations that serve as padding in between quotes that articulate - and condemn - the subject. Dumas fears were well founded, one so-called art journalist's take on Dumas painted an ugly portrait. I felt enraged - not because I situate Dumas on a pedestal - but I loathe journalists who scrimp on research and root their observations in their limited knowledge. In such a situation the nuance of the subject is lost. This article was an appalling piece of journalism that will no doubt blight the journalists' reputation among those in the know. Those who comprehend and value quality and ethical journalism are a very small group of people... but make no mistake they are there watching from the corner of their eye. As for Dumas, working in the public realm she has no choice but to surrender control. She enjoys writing and has tried to contribute to the multitude of voices that interpret and typecast her work.
"I don’t like being paternalised and colonised by every Tom, Dick and Harry that comes along (male or female). I want to participate in the writing of my own history."
While I relish reading what Dumas writes - there is something poetic and perceptive about her written expression - I quickly discovered when I interviewed her that she plays with words, juggling them around and subverting, challenging their meaning to such an extent that she destabilses their significance, robbing them of their concrete value. As such Dumas does not abide by what she has said - so how can she have a hand in writing an authentic history of herself?
Has any artist been able to write their own history?
Also given how self-deprecating Dumas is - "not everything I do is great" - can she feed into the myth that surrounds her as a world-acclaimed artist? She is acutely aware of the mythmaking that surrounds famous artists and seems to be trying to undermine the phenomenon that is "Marlene Dumas." This of course, brings one to the underlying question that her exhibition inspires: Is Dumas great because her work has sold for over $3-million or are the exhorbitant prices her work commands only fitting for art that is intellectually and visually progressive. I think that the (monetary) value of her art has created a vexed relationship between Dumas and her oeuvre as it has for Damian Hirst. In my interview with Dumas she told me she was afraid of "impersonating herself."

Friday, February 1, 2008

Alison Kearney and Emily Stainer/Goodman Gallery

Writing up end of year lists of the best art exhibitions last year for The Sunday Independent and Art SA, it suddenly struck me how few shows have left a lasting impression or, in retrospect, were that intellectually or visually progressive. As such I approached the first show of the year, Alison Kearney and Emily Stainer at The Goodman in Jozi, with a sharper eye and less generous attitude. I arrived at The Goodman wanting to be blown away, wanting the art to shift something in my psyche. Unfortunately Kearney and Stainer's art did neither. Read my review below:

In the entrance hall to the gallery one is greeted by a delicately executed gouche painting featuring an ornate vintage plate on which sits the gnarled foot of a chicken. Hardly a sight to whet the appetite but Emily Stainer’s talent for prettifying the grotesque, renders the image surprisingly charming, in an old-worldly way. Adjacent to this artwork is a sepia photograph by Alison Kearney that presents a rural idyll populated by women resplendent in garments from a bygone era, similarly conjuring up an ambience closely affiliated with Victoriana. This creates the impression that the art of Kearney and Stainer are visually and conceptually unified. But nothing could be further from the truth. When one enters the gallery and is confronted with their latest oeuvres it becomes immediately obvious that the art of Kearney and Stainer is poles apart.

Transfixed by the process in which meaning is assigned to objects, Kearney’s art is centred on unpacking the values that individuals instil in everyday items. Addressing this theme Kearney invited members of the public to exchange objects with her, requesting that they leave behind an object of their choice with explanations for their selections. The result is Put Something In to Take Something Out (November 2006), a vast collage of handwritten messages and snapshots of a myriad of seemingly mundane objects.

This unconventional artwork articulates a laissez faire approach to art-making in which the artist surrenders agency, allowing the public to have a hand at engineering the content and removing her desire to inculcate spectators with her perception of reality. This may be a brave and risky undertaking but with art’s meaning so reliant on viewers’ interpretation one could argue that it is audiences who ultimately confer art with significance. Even though Kearney configures the participants’ messages into a logical arrangement by applying an ordering system to facilitate understanding, the result is a mishmash of expression that has no coherency. Not that Kearney is striving for consistency. Predictably, the responses she received from spectators reveals a mixture of abstract, literal or emotional associations with objects that further separates “the thing” (sign or object) from what it denotes. This leaves one with the conclusion that objects are blank entities that are simply malleable conduits for meaning.

Just as French philosopher Rene Descartes attempted to suspend his beliefs so that he could approach reality from a fresh perspective, one senses that Kearney is endeavoring to detach meaning from objects thereby allowing for their authentic import to become apparent. This concept is further explored in Taking Flight and Wishful Thinking, which shows Kearney taking an everyday object such as a paper airplane, trying to ascertain at what point in its construction or dissemination its bona fide meaning is imbued.

Stainer’s art on the other hand sees her configuring an object to reveal the influence cultural producers wield over society, instilling fear and reinforcing moral codes. Her meticulously executed brand of painting – which can no doubt be attributed to her spell at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London – suggests that the intricacy and beauty of cultural products persuades, coerces and moulds our perceptions of reality from a young age, allowing us little room to subjectively interpret the world. Stainer is apparently – according to the PR bumf - preoccupied with paradoxical rhymes and children’s tales that juxtapose pretty illustrations and idealised sentiments with cruelty and abuse. The tale of Little Red Riding Hood, which sees a child devoured for dinner, being an ideal example of how conflicting and disturbing messages are embedded in primitive tales.

Aside from the title of this series of works – Cautionary Tale – the connection between Stainer’s plates of dismembered body parts and children’s fairytales is ambiguous. If Stainer has indeed sought to mine this literary canon she may have chosen a more direct vehicle to articulate her concepts. Her art is also repetitive; each artwork a variation of a single image. This leaves one with the impression that she has not accessed the nuances or intricacies of her subject matter. The same can be said of her Cautionary Tales: Cages series that once again sees dismembered body parts - women's legs - situated in a normalised environment, in this instance inside ornate Victorian cages.

However, Stainer’s art is not completely devoid of cunning strategies. She has achieved the unthinkable by rendering mutilated animal or body parts in such a way that they are not grotesque, thereby alluding to the manner in which threatening actions in fairytales are almost stripped of malice. The idea that child abuse is introduced to kids through bedtime stories is a fascinating concept to explore; does it prepare children for the evil that lurks in the adult population or does it normalise mistreatment? - The Sunday Independent (January 27)