Wednesday, December 24th, 2008

Marlene Dumas at MoMA and Elizabeth Peyton at the New Museum

Marlene Dumas: Measuring Your Own Grave
December 14, 2008 to February 16, 2009
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
11 West 53rd Street, between Fifth and Sixth avenues, New York City, 212 708 9400

Live Forever: Elizabeth Peyton
October 8, 2008 to January 11, 2009
The New Museum
235 Bowery, between Stanton and Rivington streets, New York City, 212 219 1222

Marlene Dumas Measuring Your Own Grave 2003. Oil on canvas, 55-1/8 x 55-1/8 inches. Private collection © 2008 Marlene Dumas, photo by Andy Keate.
Marlene Dumas, Measuring Your Own Grave 2003. Oil on canvas, 55-1/8 x 55-1/8 inches. Private collection © 2008 Marlene Dumas, photo by Andy Keate.

As existentialist injunctions go, “Measure your own grave” and “Live forever” could be said to represent polar opposites, literally of heaven and earth.  And yet, the painters to whom these phrases serve as titles for their museum surveys, respectively at the Modern and the New, are anything but opposed.  It is not as if, for instance, Elizabeth Peyton has the exclusive on ethereality, Marlene Dumas on groundedness.  Indeed, Peyton and Dumas, though of  different ages and with markedly contrastive personal histories, could be construed as soul sisters.

In the manner of that Greek legend where different maidens lined up to inspire separate body parts for the statue of a goddess, these two artists could almost be enlisted to collaborate on a portrait of the postmodern (not to mention post-feminist) condition, one that in painterly touch and depictive attitude alike is torn between intimacy and remoteness, memory and visceral presence.  And this collaboration would take place without a major compromise on either’s part in terms of modus operandi, touch, or – even, really – philosophy.

Both paint thin in a way that is no mere matter of personal handwriting: thinness equates to a state of alienation towards, or skepticism about, the expressive capacity of paint.  There is a kind of laid back alla prima in both bodies of work: a sense of watery, muted color soaking into the support, in Dumas’s case, as if images resulted as much from accidental spillage as gestural intention.  In Peyton, perfunctory but unurgent delivery ensures an effect that is lively and slight: her painterly smear ensures at least low octane empathy while surfaces feel mildly distressed.

They are both soulful and emotionally invested in what they choose to paint but are in no hurry to “master” their subjects or materials.  Indeed, their touch ensures a sense of humbleness towards the act of depiction.  Words that work equally for both women are fey expressionism.

In stylistic genealogy, a strking common progenitor is Edvard Munch: consider Peyton’s September (Ben) (2001) and Dumas’s The Visitor (1995) for a lyrical angst that looks back to Munch.

And this shared ancestor aside, Dumas and Peyton are both self-enslaved to the photograph as source and avatar of their imagery.  Recently, Peyton has begun (or returned) to working from life, the implications of which are yet to unfold; but hitherto a tension between emotional investment and physical separation worked itself out in relation to her dependence on mediated images, and a yearning for visceral connection across a temporal divide, a desire to know the unknown. In Dumas, the insistence on working from found, mediated images with the sense of remove that that engenders seems like an act of political defiance rather than a personal style choice.

Body and Soul
In the divisions of labor regarding that collaboration I envisaged, there is no question that Dumas should be assigned the body.  Her figuration is marvelously gutsy.   Bodies sit solidly on the canvas or paper even when there is a thin, washy effect, and pivot the composition, even when there is knowing naïveté in the draftsmanship.  She puts light on limbs delectably, even in images of torture and exploitation.  And sex really matters to her.  This comes across not just in the many paintings that deal with the sex industry but also in other body images, even those of infants or corpses.  She is a supremely erotic artist—paint, politics and the body are all aligned to arouse.

Peyton, by the same token, should be left the face—although Dumas is no slouch in that department. Arguably the pinnacle of Dumas’s superbly installed MoMA show is the chapel-like anteroom housing Black Drawings (1991-92), 111 drawings and one work on slate of approximately nine-by-seven inches each.  These initially slight, schematic, generic faces in their gridded ranks reveal sensitive individuality.  With exceptions, Dumas’s faces are anonymous individuals extracted from the body politic – as likely chosen for some social slight or economic marginalization that they represent as for their personal look. Peyton’s faces, on the other hand, are iconic individuals—celebrities, culture heros, personal friends—who are saints in a private religion of nostalgia, doomed youth, and exalted bohemia.

Ironically, where Dumas personalizes the anonymous, Peyton standardizes the individual.  There is an unmistakable Peyton stamp to any face that narrows the eyes, heightens the lips, feminizes the cheekbones and hardens the jaw into a generic type.  In this sense she is like a Byzantine icon painter who, in her devotion to the individual, connects to a universal.

Dumas and Peyton are united in their limitations as well as their strengths—and, arguably, in their capacity to ensure that their limitations are strengths.  Dumas’s photo-dependency gives her imagery political edge.  Denial of sensory depth almost punishes viewers for yearning for it, reminding them of the urgencies of injustice and exploitation that this art – and their consciences – should be addressing.  Her chromophobia is that of Guernica, a direct reference to the black and white of news reportage (a residual association that survives in a color TV age, somehow signaling “news” to all generations.)

Peyton’s style wallows in its own patheticism, as if cloying, ephemeral, illustration techniques are symptoms of self-pity.  Such knowingly retarded means sit perfectly with the basically adolescent emotion she taps, which is that of star-struck infatuation.  The miracle in Peyton is that, despite such one-dimensionality of form and content alike, she is able to pull off both an iconic magnetism in individual works and a sense of an integral personal world across the corpus of her oeuvre.

Ancien Régime
The striking contrast between these two shows lies not with the artists so much as their curators.  Having once tried to borrow a Dumas painting for a group exhibition, and having seen a disappointing show of her work at (it just so happens) the New Museum, at its old, Broadway location some years ago, I can vouch for the fact that she can be an uneven painter.  You wouldn’t know that from Cornelia Butler’s spritely selection and meticulously paced installation.  Peyton, on the other hand, has been let down by Laura Hoptman’s visually tasteless and thematically thoughtless hang.  We get no sense of development in her work, despite a vaguely chronological hang, nor of shape in her constellation of infatuees.  Peyton’s reputation rests, in part, on the ability of a single small picture on a large museum wall to galvanize attention.  Live forever, an object lesson in more being less, is a potentially lethal overdose for this youngish artist’s reputation.

Elizabeth Peyton September (Ben) 2001. Oil on board, 12-1/8 x 9-1/8 inches. Private Collection, Courtesy Gavin Brown's enterprise, New York
Elizabeth Peyton, September (Ben) 2001. Oil on board, 12-1/8 x 9-1/8 inches. Private Collection, Courtesy Gavin Brown's enterprise, New York

But curatorial problems can hardly account for the negative vibes her show has elicited, if not in the printed record then at least in verbal responses I have been monitoring from people I trust.  There has been a curious, consistent argument that aligns Peyton to the wrong politics. One artist felt that Mary Heilmann and Peyton represented an aesthetic choice as stark – and related to – the political choice facing the nation, while a week after the election another painter opined that Peyton seemed to her so ancien régime, as if Obama will free us of celebrity worship and style recyling. This seemed harsh when Peyton had rushed out a portrait of Michelle and Sasha Obama at the Democratic Convention, a picture inserted in the show after it had opened, even if apposite in relation to, say, Picnic (M.A.) after Sofia Copploa’s Marie Antoinette, not to mention countless doting portraits by Peyton of Princess (as the Queen then was) Elizabeth and other wistful Windsors.

But there seems to be a strange insistence on the part of otherwise savvy commentators to see Peyton’s personalism and knowing slightness of style as inherent (moral) limitations rather than to appreciate the integrity of her compact between content and style – the strength, in other words, of her flimsiness. Conversely, there is an assumption that the humanism and political engagement in Dumas, with its somber hues and agitprop urgency, makes her work correspondingly more serious.  I admire Dumas, and can certainly sense that her politics gives her work gravitas where Peyton’s patheticism lends hers levity.  But gravitas isn’t substance per se, nor is levity lack of it.  Or, put another way, Gericault may be a more important artist than Puvis, but it isn’t because the former paints corpses and the latter nymphs.

Marlene Dumas: Measuring Your Own Grave was organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, in association with MoMA, and was on view in LA June 22 to September 22, 2008. The exhibition catalogue, published by Moca and Distributed Art Publishers, Inc, contains texts by Butler, Dumas, Lisa Gabrielle Mark, Matthew Monahan and Richard Shiff.

Live Forever: Elizabeth Peyton will travel to the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London; and the Bonnefantenmuseum, Maastricht. The exhibition catalogue, published by Phaidon, has texts by Laura Hoptman, Iwona Bazwick, and John Giorno.