Monday, December 28th, 2009

Carroll Dunham at Gladstone Gallery

October 30 – December 5, 2009
515 West 24th Street, between 10th and 11th avenues,
New York City, 212-206-9300

Carroll Dunham, Tree with Red Flowers 2009. Mixed media on canvas, 75 x 90 inches. Courtesy of Gladstone Gallery
Carroll Dunham, Tree with Red Flowers 2009. Mixed media on canvas, 75 x 90 inches. Courtesy of Gladstone Gallery

Carroll Dunham’s rough canvases, tilting toward aggressive sexual assertion and actions of near anarchy, are catchy tunes of hipster malice. Brilliantly colored, self-sufficient in the confidence of their rhetoric, the paintings are busy with protrusions resembling genitalia, organic forms indicative of other body parts, and a humorous treatment generally of the human body. Comic-book clarity and raw desire figure in major ways in this show of Dunham’s recent paintings, which focus on the back view of a female nude in a stylized landscape. Both the female body and the environment in which it has been placed are rendered in grossly configured terms; viewers experience a kind of overkill, determined by the intensity of Dunham’s hues as well as the sheer frankness of the imagery. It is clear, then, that the artist’s reputation as a bad boy with considerable skill dies hard; indeed, it is more or less evident that this is the way he wants to be seen by the public.

This stance may be well and good on a surface level, but it raises questions and doubts about the work itself. What are we to do with so strenuous an outlaw painter? Assuming an attitude is not the same as painting a painting, although it often appears that, for Dunham, the two activities are pretty much the same. While the artist’s technical skill is not in question—his sense of color and graphic composition abilities are really very good—it proves easy to doubt the stylized stance of someone whose creativity revolves around an adolescent vision of sexual high jinks and comic disorder.  The paintings, both past and present, look like adult cartoons on the order of soft porn; they perform their transgressions rather perfunctorily, as if Dunham himself was a bit bored with an attitude so thick it can be cut with a knife. His eroticism is not necessarily divisive, but it does narrow the expressive range of his formal ideas.

In Tree with Red Flowers (2009), a large mixed-media painting with a thick brown trunk, dark green foliage ending in round-shaped branches given a black outline, Dunham’s simplified rawness works to good effect. There is a rough beauty to the colors and imagery, which include a blue-white sky and a series of red flowers painted on top of the greenery. The composition’s simplicity emphasizes the primal forms it comprises, so that Dunham’s audience can appreciate his deployment of contrasting hues.  But in the “Hers” series, the sexual takes over—in (Hers) Night and Day #1 (2009), we see the naked body of a black-haired woman lying on her stomach. Surrounded by nature—a brightly blue sky, grass, a tree, and purple flowers with a red center—the nude projects her own erotic meaning toward the viewer, complete with big hips and a hairy vagina. Nature takes second place when juxtaposed with the imagistic force of a naked woman.

Carroll Dunham, Bather (one) 2009. Mixed media on canvas, 71 x 71 inches. Courtesy of Gladstone Gallery
Carroll Dunham, Bather (one) 2009. Mixed media on canvas, 71 x 71 inches. Courtesy of Gladstone Gallery

But there is a problem with the adolescent imagery—like much erotic art, it tends to become repetitively stylized, evoking desire in a way that seems superficial. Dunham’s range of imagery is rather narrow, and he would like to make up with intensity what he lacks in breadth. In Bather (One) (2009), a naked woman is seen from the back; naked, she is bent over, thigh deep in water. An explosion of black hair covers her erogenous zone.  Dunham, meanwhile, constructs a lyricism in the hilly landscape beyond: green grass, trees with coiled foliage, a pale blue sky, and, at the top of the painting, the bottom half of the sun. The figure’s breasts hang freely just above the water line. One is hard put to appreciate the heavily outlined body, which offers viewers access to the primal reality of the cartoon. Formally, the composition is workable, but it isn’t about very much. Dunham needs a new theme to inspire his talents, which here lose out to a rebelliousness that makes little sense.