October 2008, Marlene Dumas @ MoCA

 Marlene Dumas, Losing (Her Meaning), 1988, oil on canvas, 19 11/16 x 27 9/16 in.,
 Private Collection, courtesy of Galerie Paul Andriesse, Amsterdam,
 © 2008 Marlene Dumas

Marlene Dumas
Measuring your own Grave
Through September 22, 2008

The difference between the recording of an event and our memory of it is fraught with tension. Many of Marlene Dumas' paintings start as a photograph, or the subjective/objective view of a particular moment in time. The artist then infuses the image with subjective meaning as she distorts and plays with objects and people depicted in the frame, most often women, children and people of color. Her paintings are therefore palimpsests of a sort, replacing memory traces with painterly renderings that have a ruthless truth-telling to them, provoking gut reactions from its equally shocked and intrigued viewer.

 Marlene Dumas, Jen, 2005, oil on canvas, 43 3/8 x 51 1/4 in., The Museum of Modern Art, New York,
 fractional and promised gift of Marie-Josée and Henry R. Kravis, © 2008 Marlene Dumas

 Marlene Dumas, Measuring Your Own Grave, 2003, oil on canvas, 55 1/8 x 55 1/8 in.,
 private collection, © 2008 Marlene Dumas, photo by Andy Keate

One has to wonder how much of this approach to painting is due to Dumas' South African origins, from which she fled during the age of apartheid. Does she remember what it was like? Does she owe some of these haunting, confrontational images to the experience of living in a country steeped in oppression and violence, a place where a person of non-color like herself might be made to answer for the actions of separate, unaffiliated forces? There is an undertone of guilt in the works of Marlene Dumas, as in Drunk, a self portrait of the artist nude, displayed alongside life-sized depictions of prostitutes exhibiting their wares in the red light district of her adopted home, Amsterdam. The only article of clothing on these bodies are a pair of shoes- the telltale accessory of a stripper. The artist seems to be drawing parallels between her own occupation and that of these filles de joie – both are there to please, excite or offend the viewer's senses. But where there is complicity there is also camaraderie – Dumas (who helped install the show) seems to take pleasure as well in placing herself alongside a series entitled Magdalena, where the mythic temptress comes in all shapes and sizes. This room seems to attest to the schizophrenic aspect of being a woman – one moment you're scorned, the next you're being sought after, next you're on your own.

 Marlene Dumas, The Painter, 1994, oil on canvas, 78 3/4 x 39 1/4 in.,
 The Museum of Modern Art, New York, fractional and promised gift of Martin and
 Rebecca Eisenberg, © 2008 Marlene Dumas

 Marlene Dumas, The White Disease, 1985, oil on canvas,
 49 3/16 x 41 5/16 in., Private Collection, © 2008 Marlene Dumas

 Marlene Dumas, The Woman of Algiers, 2001, oil on canvas, 78 3/4 x 39 3/8 in.,
 The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and The Nasher Museum of Art at
 Duke University, Durham, partial and promised gift of Blake Byrne,
 © 2008 Marlene Dumas

Admittedly, some of Marlene Dumas' paintings can seem like damnation in and of themselves. The images of women and also children can come across as highly ambiguous and thus interpreted as the perpetuation of the negative one-dimensional images that can be found everywhere in the mass media and on the internet. Reactions to the show overheard in the women's restroom contained adjectives such as “offensive” and “crude.” But ultimately what matters is Dumas' depictions themselves – images of women and children by a female artist who has actually brought life into this world. The point of view of a woman who has experienced a large part of the spectrum of human emotion. In addition, the act of copying such existing images blurs and exposes them at the same time. The ambiguity of these images reflect the mixed messages we as viewers and consumers of media imagery receive – why do we accept confrontation with certain images (mainly of a promotional nature) and not others? But Dumas is also drawing attention to the collusive act of observing. By looking, we are implicated, and with that follows action. With action comes the possibility of change in a regime of images.

Cynthia Valdez

Cynthia Valdez is a writer in LA.

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