Painter Marlene Dumas, born in 1953 in Capetown, South Africa, has lived and worked in Amsterdam since 1976. In her work, she uses the human figure as her subject matter. Both the physical reality of the human body and the psychological aspects of the face and body language are emphasized in Dumas’s works to explore and critique contemporary ideas of race, sexuality, and social identity. In addition, Dumas tends to paint her subjects at the extreme fringes of life’s cycle, from birth to death, with a continual emphasis on classical modes of representation in Western art, such as the nude or the funerary portrait.
The exhibition, Marlene Dumas: Measuring Your Own Grave, is the first mid-career survey of this painter’s work to be mounted in the United States and features approximately 65 paintings and 25 drawings.
Key paintings in the exhibition include The White Disease (1985), which addresses issues of race by creating a visual relationship between the surface of skin and the surface of painting.
Dumas’s portrayal of the female figure, often nude or provocatively clothed, contrasts with traditional art historical representations of women. In iconic works such as Waiting (For Meaning) and Losing (Her Meaning) (both 1988), the artist questions the power of this classic image—the female nude—to convey meaning. Other works, such as Miss Pompadour (1999) and Cracking the Whip (2000), show women in provocative poses, both humorous and assaulting in their acrobatic
sexuality, while Male Beauty (2002) features an erotic image of a male nude.
Works like Die Baba (The Baby) (1985) challenge the traditional portrayal of children by suggesting their mysterious and even threatening aspects. Notions of beauty and ugliness underlie
Models (1994), a group of 100 related drawings in serial format that capture the diverse facial expressions of women in various professional and psychological roles.
Examples from Dumas’s recent body of work, the Man Kind series (2002-06), highlight the artist’s ongoing commitment to questioning received ideas about identity and politics by presenting portraits of men, seemingly of Middle Eastern descent, drawn from images of terrorists, martyrs, Dutch Moroccans, Palestinians, friends, actors, and ordinary citizens. In Duct Tape (2002–05), the subject’s face is obscured by a hood, recalling recent photographs of Abu Ghraib or images of Palestinian prisoners. These paintings force the viewer to recognize the complexity of current political conflicts and our evolving understanding of race, identity, and Palestinian prisoners. These paintings force the viewer to recognize the complexity of current political conflicts and our evolving understanding of race, identity, and human confrontation.
Among the more recent works in the exhibition is Dead Marilyn (2008), based on an autopsy photograph of Marilyn Monroe, which Dumas painted for the exhibition’s premiere showing at MOCA.
Dumas is widely considered the “most expensive living female artist” since her painting The Teacher was auctioned for 3.34 million dollars in 2005.
Organized by The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA) in association with The Museum of Modern Art, New York (MoMA), the show is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue.
The Menil Collection Web Site