Seriously, what are Carroll Dunham’s paintings about?

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, Next Bathers, one (picking flowers), 2012, mixed media on linen, 78 1/4 x 61 1/4 inches.
Carroll Dunham, Next bathers, four (wash), 2012, mixed media on linen, 61 1/4 x 78 1/4 inches.
Carroll Dunham, Late Trees #5, 2012, mixed media on linen, 80 1/4 x 75 1/4 inches.

Carroll Dunham, Late Trees #7, 2012, mixed media on linen, 80 1/4 x 75 1/4 inches.

Carroll Dunham,” Barbara Gladstone, Chelsea, New York, NY. Through January 19, 2013.
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45 thoughts on “Seriously, what are Carroll Dunham’s paintings about?”

      1. How many influential blind people did it take to convince the masses that her “work” was anything other than ridiculous. Its like a small child was shown flashes of a porn and was then thrown some paints and told them to recreate what they’ve seen. Anyone declaring this to be appealing art should probably pour sulfuric acid into their eyes because they arent using them anyway. Its not offensive nor is it beautiful. Its just crap.

        1. Beauty is in the acid etched eyes of the beholder.
          Some of the comments so harsh….

          I find Carroll’s paintings to have a sense of humor…but not funny.

  1. Sharon,

    I think your comment, "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." is very interesting and would love to hear more what you are thinking here.


  2. These paintings don't appeal to me but I respect the artist's approach to making them. Yes, MFA students are being encouraged to overthink their work before even making it.

  3. dunham has internalized the best of what painting has had to offer in the last thirty years, and is the best at his practice in the world at this particular moment. he's left the gustonesque morbidity that hobbled his previous work behind for, uh, greener pastures, and these prelapsarian edenic views are fraught with so much experience i'm loath to describe them further. suffice to say he's untroubled by the apocalyptic theory that seemingly doomed painting to irrelevance, and is making legit pictures that hew to craft and tradition without succumbing to the endless pull of a bad infinity. this is tremendous work. go see this show.

  4. The trees are OK – if you think thick black outlines are enough to sort out drawing. The women are just ugly.

    All the craft in the world can't disguise a deep hostility projected on women – probably because he was lumbered with a girl's name by his parents…

    Not a fan.

  5. I don't think there is anything crude about his technique. To me it is better than John Currin's because Currin is deliberately retrospective, attempting to satisfy a particular idea of good old fashioned painting, while Dunham works in the way that is called for by the bluntness of his imagery and 130 yrs of the just-enough craft of modernism (so I guess that's retrospective too, so let's just say I find his technique judicious). I especially like those scraggy drags in the trees in the 09 work. These new ones might be a little too refined.

  6. The MFA comment is perhaps the most interesting since in the body of this interview Dunham seems to disconnect everything and everyone from the work itself as if it simply fell from the sky, immutable. Regardless, as an MFA I echo the sentiment but with a bit more rancor. Why teach me Post Modern philosophy, Derrida and such, and then tell me not to think about it and just paint? Why raise the primitive mind up to an intellectual one only to tell it to again become primitive? If there is no cannon, only some monastic koan of understanding, then why do we bother to discuss it at all?

  7. This is horrible. It looks like the obsessive therapy art from a child who accidentally caught daddy vigorously banging mommy. The over exaggerated female parts, not drawing a face, trees…together or separate these are the devices that frustrated kids use when they are trying to be great artists in the 5th grade. Which is exactly why he can't assign meaning…he still hasn't found his subject or theme and is still resting on elementary ideas (and executing them that way). All he needs to do is include a picture of a house with smoke coming out the chimney. His technique is too deliberate to suggest he is purposefully drawing this crappy when he could otherwise to better. The composition is just so damn amateurish. The color palette is like a prescribed set you can get at WalMart. This is a joke in the face of many other talented people. I feel really sorry for his wife and daughters.

  8. How many vaginas do you have to draw before you're over it already? Trying to assign meaning to these horrific paintings is futile at best.