The Museum of Modern Art's retrospective of South African painter Marlene Dumas, entitled Measuring Your Own Grave, shows a distinctive body of accomplished work that challenges the viewer. Reviews can be good or bad or sometimes scathing. Perhaps they boringly refrain from opinion, as if facts could convey anything of interest. Dumas’s works left a strong impression on me, but it hangs inarticulate in the back of my throat. Why is her work so difficult to talk about?
Her figurative paintings focus on bodies in space: women, children, corpses, and groups. In cold fragmented colors she suggests, sometimes quite beautifully, a face as strongly as if you had seen it in a dream. Yet the quality is contradicted by the eyes on canvas meeting yours. They are unreadable and unhappy.
From explicit sexual poses to prone corpses, the subjects attempt a gritty realism that wars with the dreamlike style, especially in her water-based works on paper. The subject challenges it’s own subject-hood through its gaze, the subject matter challenges the style and medium. Is it any wonder the only conclusion I draw is ambivalence?
Her works, which are so strong and accomplished, struggle with meaning. Except for her more political/sexual works, which are too literal and graceless for my taste, Dumas paints people whose gendered identity or ethnicity comes forward more than their individuality. Yet these works aren’t making a statement, and these people become ghost or dream people.
Dumas’ works reminded me of Chagall, in that they are not grounded in reality, take on shimmering skin colors, and in their simplified contours seem significant of humanity – and yet puzzling them out is more imaginative than logical.
Full of verve without joy, her thinly painted, fragmented style, and hallucinatory colors, Dumas’s figures toe a borderline of real and imagined that won’t quite let the viewer make comfortable assumptions, and this disquieting quality illuminates her work with a chill beauty.