The student media organization of California State University Northridge

Daily Sundial

The student media organization of California State University Northridge

Daily Sundial

The student media organization of California State University Northridge

Daily Sundial

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The complicated measure of one?s own grave

The survey of Marlene Dumas’s work on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles is a demanding installation of provocative art. Marking the first proper introduction of Dumas into the mainstream California art scene, the exhibit is on display until Sept.22.

There are more than 100 pieces of art in the exhibit. Dumas uses photographs, both original and produced by the media, as her material for paintings almost exclusively. The work is not displayed chronologically but rather by theme, often placing her early work from the 1980s with paintings done as recently as 2003. The majority of the art is oil on canvas, although there are some sketches and ink watercolors.

The title of the art retrospective, ‘Measuring Your Own Grave,’ is derived from a 2003 painting depicting a man kneeling down, with outstretched hands as an almost ironic courtesy to the audience. The starkly contrasting colors, from a dark upper section spilling into a white bottom half, illuminate the man juxtaposed with his background.

In a text Dumas wrote to explain her reasoning behind choosing the exhibition’s title, she writes, ‘It is the best definition I can find for what an artist does when making art and how a figure in a painting makes its mark. For the type of portraitist like me this is as wide as I can see.’

Born in Cape Town, South Africa in 1953 but residing in Amsterdam since 1976, Dumas has developed a unique and morbid style preoccupied with her interpretations of sex, death, birth and the concept of socially constructed identity.

Her series on birth, such as the 1994 ‘Pregnant Image’ and the various pieces on infants and children, is alternatively disturbing and intriguing. Many of the infants drawn are purposely ambiguous, we are never sure if the child is dead or simply in that intoxicating tranquility of infancy.

Dumas relies consistently on cool colors such as pale grey and blue to achieve a sense of unsettling detachment within her work. Characteristic throughout her portraiture and figure drawing, the work Dumas produces is insistent on challenging the audience. Dumas’ work is unflinchingly visceral and forces uneasiness meant to provoke a closer examination of the human existence which Dumas offers in her singular, unconventional feminist manner.

This is most apparent in her pieces on death, a theme which manifests in many of her artworks. Her depiction of corpses, dead hanging children and a female skull all reinforce the inescapable mortality of Dumas and her work and we are left contemplating our own.

While her work is serious and controlled, at times there is a perverse sense of humor, as in her depiction of a bridal wedding party where the bride’s face is painted red.

In a work from 2000, entitled ‘How Low Can You Go?,’ ink acrylic on paper, a large image of a woman bending down with her hands wrapped around her chest with her face not visible, evokes a certain sense of despair. There is a strange implication of intimacy within the work and its’ thought-provoking title.

In ‘Cracking the Whip’ from 2000, Dumas drew from a pornographic image of a woman holding onto a whip. Dumas’ meditation on the subject of sex is similar to that of her depiction of birth and death, she seems to be challenging our concepts of identity and sexuality.

This powerful retrospective of Marlene Dumas’ decades of work reasserts her existing place in the international art scene and introduces Dumas to Los Angeles as one of the most acclaimed, complicated and intriguing visionaries working today.

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