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Let’s Reconsider

April 13, 2010

I found something to like about Marlene Dumas.

The Mother, 2009 (Photo: Courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner, New York)

Marlene Dumas is one of the two or three most successful female artists alive, if you judge by prices. I’ve never reviewed her work, because I find nothing in it to get excited about no matter how hard I look. She takes slam-dunk subject matter (sex, death, strippers, apartheid) and turns it rote and optically dreary with a brushy Tuymans-like approach to her figures. She scribbles around nicely in the background, dispersing loosey-goosey neo-Expressionistic brushstrokes that do, enticingly, seem to change direction in mid-stroke; she pools gooey paint here and there in alluring ways. But when she gets to the central image—usually based on a news photograph—she exercises barely any imagination, risking little, adding nothing, ending up with an uninspired likeness of the original photo. Her world goes from being fabricated to being familiar; experimentation ceases; the painting goes dead and turns psychologically stunted and politically obvious. She tells us what we already know: that there is cruelty, misogyny, suffering, and racism in this world. But she offers little insight into them.

Although I’ve avoided writing about her, I’ve made passing negative references to her work over the years, and her fans, who praise the ways she depicts the struggles of women and children, have noticed. I’ve been accused of being part of a “circle jerk” anti-Dumas cabal. A 2008 New York Times Magazine profile included a quote that called disapproving male critics (including me) part of “a sexist conspiracy.” I don’t buy that. When I criticize Joseph Beuys or Francis Bacon, nobody calls those opinions anti-male. Putting female artists or their subject matter off-limits is itself sexist and limiting.

Read more at: Let’s Reconsider

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