December 5, 2012 / A couple years ago in the LA Times, art critic David Pagel wrote that Carroll Dunham’s paintings of women were “vulgar beyond belief…offensive, demeaning and disgusting, as well as mean-spirited, malicious and horrific…bordering on vicious.” In short, Pagel declared, they were the best paintings of Dunham’s career. In his new exhibition at Gladstone, Dunham continues his inscrutable exploration of naked women that both intrigues and infuriates viewers.
[Image at top: Carroll Dunham, Large Bather (quicksand), 2006-2012, mixed media on linen; 96 1/4 x 119 inches. All images copyright Carroll Dunham and courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels.]
At first glance (or in JPEG), Dunham’s paintings, featuring women bathing in the landscape, may seem crudely constructed and cartoonish, but Dunham is a masterful paint-handler and obsessive draftsman, who pours, scumbles, scrapes, and pools layers of paint (a mixture of Guerra dispersion pigment and urethane binder, FYI), and outlines the figures and objects with bold black strokes. His paintings strike me not so much as vulgar – which implies an element of gratuitousness – as playful and irreverent – a contemporary take on the traditional bather theme.
Anyone who has read much about Dunham knows he has a house in rural Connecticut and is surrounded by women. Married to photographer Laurie Simmons (profiled by Calvin Tomkins in December 10 issue of The New Yorker) Dunham has two daughters—Grace (20), a student at Brown, and Lena (26), a filmmaker and the creator of the hit HBO series “Girls.” Perhaps Dunham is painting what he knows?
In a recent phone conversation I asked about his intent, and Dunham was reluctant to assign meaning. “I don’t think of my paintings as illustrations of anything,” he said. “There’s no one-to-one correspondence between any kind of inner experience I’m having and whatever I make on the painting. I can’t figure this out. The longer I do it, the more mysterious I find the relation between the paintings and lived experience.”
At the time Dunham started what he now calls the Bathers, he was drawn to late 19th-century and early 20th-century French paintings, and had written reviews for ArtForum on Otto Dix and late Renoir. Drawing, the foundation of his art practice, led him intuitively toward what he calls “naked human woman in a natural setting,” and then he began to think seriously about the theme of bathers throughout art history.
OK, but what about the Pagel review? “I like his enthusiasm and I like that Pagel sees an emotional density, but that isn’t how I think about what I do,” Dunham said. “That doesn’t mean it’s a wrong take, it’s just that I’m much more detached – you have to be in order to keep yourself organized over a long period of time. I know that I have gone through periods in which my subject matter has seemed to convey a pretty depressing worldview, but, then sometimes people find my painting funny, and I don’t think they’re funny either. They’re neither dire and freaky nor ironic, but I am trying to have fun while I’m making these things to the extent that that’s possible. I’m trying to let something open up, and that isn’t necessarily what I am as a person, but I can be this way as an artist. I need that multiple bandwidth emotional thing in order to feel interested in what I’m doing. Juxtapositions can be humorous, even when it’s not one’s intention to be funny or make funny paintings. Sometimes, when your imagination goes around, things just happen.”
For Dunham, painting is not about individual subjectivity, but rather a mix of craft and philosophy –an approach that strikes me as very different from the conceptual approach fostered in many MFA programs that teaches artists to articulate a specific meaning for their work. As we argue about the ultimate meaning of his images–rife with overt symbolism–we should keep in mind that Dunham himself remains detached. He says he doesn’t consciously intend, nor does he bother to analyze, the symbolism and metaphor inherent in his work. His interest lies instead in the process and tradition of painting.
Carroll Dunham, Late Trees #7, 2012, mixed media on linen, 80 1/4 x 75 1/4 inches.
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