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.