Marlene Dumas is one of the two or three most successful female artists alive, if you judge by prices. I’ve never reviewed her work, because I find nothing in it to get excited about no matter how hard I look. She takes slam-dunk subject matter (sex, death, strippers, apartheid) and turns it rote and optically dreary with a brushy Tuymans-like approach to her figures. She scribbles around nicely in the background, dispersing loosey-goosey neo-Expressionistic brushstrokes that do, enticingly, seem to change direction in mid-stroke; she pools gooey paint here and there in alluring ways. But when she gets to the central image—usually based on a news photograph—she exercises barely any imagination, risking little, adding nothing, ending up with an uninspired likeness of the original photo. Her world goes from being fabricated to being familiar; experimentation ceases; the painting goes dead and turns psychologically stunted and politically obvious. She tells us what we already know: that there is cruelty, misogyny, suffering, and racism in this world. But she offers little insight into them.
Although I’ve avoided writing about her, I’ve made passing negative references to her work over the years, and her fans, who praise the ways she depicts the struggles of women and children, have noticed. I’ve been accused of being part of a “circle jerk” anti-Dumas cabal. A 2008 New York Times Magazine profile included a quote that called disapproving male critics (including me) part of “a sexist conspiracy.” I don’t buy that. When I criticize Joseph Beuys or Francis Bacon, nobody calls those opinions anti-male. Putting female artists or their subject matter off-limits is itself sexist and limiting.
All the same, I thought I would try to see Dumas’s work fresh at “Against the Wall,” her new exhibition at David Zwirner. The show contains seventeen streaky paintings centered on the Israeli conflict, showing us Orthodox Jews on their way to pray, a woman mourning in a cemetery, armed soldiers, flowers, a plate of grapes (titled The Grapes of Wrath; no, really, it is), and a self-portrait. Most of the gallery is filled, once again, with hackneyed solemnity; she’s essentially traded one set of obvious hot-button topics for another. But Dumas has improved her processes of using oils like watercolor, making her paint rawer yet layering it with radiating undercurrents of off-color; her distortions, elongations, and ways of handling crowds have more poignancy and focus. And because she isn’t painting over roughed-in drawings, these canvases feel looser and less premeditated. Two of them, in fact, I liked. A painting called Mindblocks (titles are not her strong suit) shows the sort of concrete objects used to build roadblocks. There are wonderful washes of blurry cerulean transparency and caviarlike gluts of pigment, and the starkness is powerful. Another canvas, Wall Wailing, depicts soldiers searching civilians, and it clicks because it shows us not individuals but faceless forms. Her simple shift from individual sorrow and anger to a more abstract portrait of collective frustration and rage evokes a pervasive, almost cosmic malaise and hopelessness.
Dumas paints some of the same subjects (sex, death, war, terrorism) and uses similarly blurry techniques as Gerhard Richter. But whereas Richter makes the (hard to believe) claim that he is objective and indifferent to his subject matter, Dumas foregrounds her subjectivity. When it works, her paintings pop. When she falls back into lackluster techniques, her work turns flat and clichéd.
I like that there’s something skittish and haunted to Dumas’s touch. I love her insightful comment “I paint because I am a dirty woman.” Dumas goes right at that word dirty, hinting at but also getting beyond its sexual connotation. She explicitly rejects being limited to her private life, unequivocally connecting the feminine with the messiness, physicality, and sensuality of painting. If only she probed her own painterly formula and thoughts more deeply, her canvases might come alive. Until then, her work takes tragic, terrible things and turns them into illustrations of themselves.