In the late sixties, Philip Guston -- an Abstract Expressionist admired for the subtle delicacy of his brush -- suddenly began making very awkward pictures. While retaining his fine-arts touch, he created cartoonish images of shoes, whiskery faces, and dangling lightbulbs. The established art world reacted with dismay. But many younger painters admired the beautiful, bastard mix, delighting in Guston's unholy marriage of high art and low illustration. His approach seemed to offer a way to invigorate traditional painting, and it felt true to the jumbled messages of contemporary culture. During the same period, young artists were also fascinated by Cy Twombly's graffitilike scribbles, R. Crumb's propulsive, scabrous line, and the sort of campy surrealism traditionally dismissed as kitsch by serious critics. Young artists were academic-minded, too -- fluent in conceptual art and trained in the genealogies of art history -- and, with riots, assassinations, and Vietnam fresh in their minds, took a dark view of humanity and American power.
Carroll Dunham came of age in this milieu. Now the subject of a mid-career retrospective at the New Museum organized by Lisa Phillips and Dan Cameron, he has created a body of work that occupies the edgy space between painting and the angry, expressionist cartoon. Much as cartoonists will, he has invented a signature "character." Or perhaps it's more like a signature creature, a humanish thing that's mostly mouth, teeth, and genitals. Usually (but not always), it's male. It sometimes wears a tie and a stovepipe hat, and, significantly, it has no eyes. In other words, it is mainly soulless appetite. It inhabits an environment of violence, constantly fighting with others of its kind. Its penis-nose is a weapon that both spears its owner -- sort of goofily, like the arrow in Steve Martin's head -- and shoots, spits at, and bops other snarling creatures. Dunham conveys violence not just by illustrating it but also through his handling of line and color. He smears the hues and tears the forms and scribbles across the surface in a kind of eloquent frenzy.
In Dunham's art, not much reason is given for the ferocity. There might be a battle between male and female creatures, for example, but no narrative explains why. It just seems to be the nature of the beast. Many of his paintings convey the hidden physicality of people through vaginal forms, intestinelike shapes, and scatological soilings; some have a raised surface of bumps, which recall the pictures taken with an electron microscope of viruses or cellular mutations. The sensation of inner physicality in Dunham's art also represents, of course, a mental or spiritual condition. (If we were still in the Freudian era, we might call him a painter of the inner idiot.) In our culture, rage at human violence and folly no longer takes the form that it did in, say, prewar German Expressionism. Instead, it wells up through cartoons and the jangling color of pop. There is some slapstick comedy in Dunham -- something like Moe boinging Larry and Curly -- but any smile is also a grimace.
Dunham's art depends mainly upon the graphic energy of his line. His recent black-and-white paintings, somewhat more abstract than usual, highlight this visual strength. The creatures demand less of our attention while the line itself conveys more of the message. The compositions, in turn, appear more formal. Strangely enough, Dunham actually has a rather studied sensibility. What I find disquieting about his art, in fact, is less the subject matter than the mixture of savvy and savagery. The images of bestial bashing in late Goya do not have that quality. They seem to silence the voices of art: They come from the very bottom of the human well. Something similar is true of late Guston. The contrast between elegant touch and simple, rough-hewn imagery conveys so much melancholy that one hesitates to disturb the imagery with analysis. But with Dunham, I find myself full of scratchy internal chatter about artistic sources and questions about the formal value of the paintings. I respect the work but don't find myself moved to dumbfounded silence.