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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39 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.

    thanks,
    Jim

  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.

  9. I think they are horrific and if I had to wake up everyday and see these in my house I would rather be dead. They just exploit women in a vulgar and hateful way which has been done for thousands of years already!

    1. They are a very vicious representation of women. He claims he “can’t figure this out.” I think he should spend some time with a shrink trying to figure it out. Just awful and difficult to look at.

  10. Obviously, this man also has a penis fixation as evidenced by the green penis-shaped objects coming out of the water in some of his paintings. Didn't anyone else but me notice this? Otherwise, anyone could paint these.

  11. Has anyone noticed that he never shows the woman’s face.. also in many paintings the vagina is not even a part of the body. Just king of floating next to their butts. Also, he tries to get all of the female sexual parts in the same viewpoint which is impossible. That is, the vagina, the butt hole and the breasts, but not showing the face.. There is something deeply disturbing about his viewpoint of women through his artwork.. that is, he doesn’t accept their humanness and only sees them as a collection of parts.. or a vaginal hole, detached from an actual human being.

    1. OR that is what he is trying to say about society. You’re critcizing him about the very thing he is trying to convey. Which is the point of an artist. To make you think about things without being simplistic.

      So I would say you accidentally agree with his viewpoint. I don’t really like the work in terms of an aesthetic but i do agree with the concept of women being perceived by males in a superficial and self-serving manner.

      1. Well, since you know exactly what he is trying to convey in his artwork you should reach out and enlighten him on it. He himself claims he doesn’t even know. Such a well thought out theory you have.

  12. I don’t really like the paintings because I am obssessed with ideas and what can be brought up by imagery- not really into just flaccidly accepting what is given to me because it has nice colors and an interesting composition(though that’s more than some painting has).

    I’m kind of just over this ‘paint, it’s all about the paint, just love the paint’ mentality I see all over the place- and yes it is in MFA painting programs definitely, or at least in mine.

    Anyway, I don’t know – I think because these actually irritate people and they don’t just fly over people’s heads that maybe, yes they are good. I kind of just can’t stand them though because I think they are a bit stupid, and not in a charming , endearing funny way either.

    Muhp *shrugs* They feel very pointless, though I guess painting has pretty much told itself that it is meant to be pointless and only for appreciation, so that’s pretty much what has been historically set up for the medium.

    Eh, I don’t know; I don’t really see them as misogynistic though at all. Or even that bothersome in terms of content. I think people are overreacting.

    I don’t really like much of his other work either, so maybe I’m just a clueless person or something.

  13. I find his “I’m detached, they just happen” explanation to be from someone so seemingly aware to be self-deception.

    But cunts will always get a viewers reaction. So let’s just paint cunts for no reason. Wonder why his “disconnected” mind didn’t offer up puppies or daffodils?

  14. All these comments are the reason I stopped painting years ago. You people don’t deserve artists. Go stare at your IPhones some more.

  15. Very entertaining reading these comments. The paintings are so interesting. They make you feel something. You stare in wonder and then you need to look away. The images make you think and remember a sensation. I like that the paintings provoke. Some people who comment sound so angry about the power of the imagery. What is a painting suppose to do? Be well crafted and admired for its beauty ? Or stir you up and flip our expectations ?

  16. In case you were wondering why a post that is so old is still in the “Most Popular” column: During the 2016 election, a commenter at Breibart, the anti-democratic right-wing publishing organization that pushed false news stories and propaganda throughout the election, and whose then-editor Steve Bannon is now under investigation for colluding with the Russians to undermine the election, linked to the post in a column about Lena Dunham and her political activities (Go Lena–we love all the work you’ve done to keep our democracy strong). It continues to get wide readership and nasty comments, but, since we prefer comments about painting, rather than ad hominem attacks on the artist and his daughter, we don’t publish them. FYI.

  17. The problem isn’t what Dunham is doing or why. The problem is: why is this rich white dude making paintings of female nudes exalted and becomes one of the most famous and highest paid artists in America while the people who look like the subjects he depicts (women of all colors) are still fighting to be represented by galleries at all and when they are they make a fraction of the income. Galleries are hesitant to represent women blaming collectors having no interest in women’s art and collectors point the finger back at galleries and the market in a never ending sexist snake eating its tail.

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