Marlene Dumas; Measuring your own Grave. Book Review

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This catalog to the traveling exhibition organized by Cornelia Butler for the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (ISBN 978-1-933751-08-5; distributed by D.A.P., Inc.) offers considerably more visual material than the large exhibition did;

Marlene Dumas “Moshekwa” (2006) oil on canvas, 51 3/16 x 43 5/16 in., © the artist
Marlene Dumas “Moshekwa” (2006) oil on canvas, 51 3/16 x 43 5/16 in., © the artist

Not only more of the artist’s work but also a good deal of her source material which includes news photographs, postcards, snapshots and reproductions of earlier art.  The book also includes installation shots of exhibitions which, counter to the usual convention, include visitors and in one case shows a small painting cradled in the artist’s hands.  Not only do these images give a better idea of her painting’s scale than the individual reproductions, but they emphasize the fact that it is grounded in the world and deeply involved with the act of witnessing.  This handsome book is clearly laid out and well printed, giving as complete an idea of the artist’s oeuvre as a single volume could.  It will serve as a serious introduction for readers who do not know Dumas’ painting and a valuable record for those who do. Its only oddity is the lack of numbering for the images (although they are indexed), which makes it slightly more work than it should be to follow  references to them in the essays.

Marlene Dumas “The Supermodel” (1995), watercolor on paper, 26 x 19 3/4 in., © the artist
Marlene Dumas “The Supermodel” (1995), watercolor on paper, 26 x 19  3/4 in., © the artist

Cornelia Butler’s essay, Painter as Witness gives an overview of Dumas’ work and development and explores its relationship to its photographic sources.  She also explores the political stance of the paintings in terms of specific historical situations and events as well as the politics of representation.  Butler describes Dumas’ work as portraiture, which surprised me at first.  The genre is conventionally the product of commissions, although that is less the case with a number of contemporary artists who represent only friends and family.  While Dumas certainly portrays specific individuals the results have to satisfy no one but herself (which can also be said of Robert Mapplethorpe and Lucian Freud), and I sense that she expects viewers to generalize their responses to individuals who are almost always unknown to them.  Is that portraiture?  I don’t know.

Marlene Dumas “Die Baba (The Baby)” (1985), oil on canvas, 51 3/16 x 43 5/16 in., © the artist
Marlene Dumas “Die Baba (The Baby)” (1985), oil on canvas, 51 3/16 x 43 5/16 in., © the artist

Richard Schiff explores the morality of Dumas’ work in terms of her stance towards her subjects, the dilemmas of photographic imagery and the independence of painting.  He is particularly sensitive to the relationship of the physicality of the painter’s touch to the physicality of the body depicted.  Lisa Gabrielle Mark looks at Dumas’ representation of children and maternity and analyzes her particularly emotional yet unsentimentalized stance.

The catalog includes an appreciation by the artist, Matthew Monahan, a number of statements in verse by Dumas, and the usual back matter of bibliography and history of exhibitions.

Tags

cornelia butler, lisa gabrielle mark, marlene dumas, matthew monahan, moca la, richard schiff

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