Carroll Dunham: Paintings
October 31 2002 – February 2 2003
Hunger and love are what moves the world. —Friederich Schiller
The young Paul Cézanne often used a vulgar adjective to describe his artistic practice: couillard. Roughly translated, Cézanne-that figure we’ve come to acknowledge as the father of modern art-was calling himself “ballsy.” Referring as much to his unconventional brushstroke and use of color as to his erratic subject matter, Cézanne’s simple self-denomination spoke volumes about the way he painted-encouraging unstable, erotic, sometimes downright mad elements to burrow their way to the surface of his canvases; infusing even the most potentially banal images with vibrant, if veiled, traces of sexuality, masculinity, and violence.
If there’s a couillard painter in our time, it’s Carroll Dunham. For the past twenty years, Dunham has fine-tuned a vocabulary of painting that pushes pigments’ capacities to their material limits and reflects a world bursting with those convulsive, violent elements Cézanne was once so unpopular for alluding to. Dunham’s work has at its core an innate predisposition toward Darwinian survival of the fittest, all the while abstaining from blatant cultural critique or heavy-handed political diatribe. The great-grandson and great-great-grandson of homeopathic physicians, Dunham presents us with images of growth and destruction in much the way a philosopher-scientist would-with an unabashed, if necessarily distanced, enthusiasm. It’s as though Jacques Derrida’s theory of Plato’s Pharmakon-that a curative drug, depending on the amount administered, can function as easily as poison as remedy; and that in order to become immune to something deadly, one must ingest a bit of it-is the subtext for all of Dunham’s work. In homeopathic tradition, Dunham uses culture’s poisons as nearly lethal cures, injecting just enough of humankind’s toxic characteristics-greed, hate, envy, relentless self-absorption-to act as an immune system against them. In each ascending manifestation, Dunham’s inoculated mongrels grow increasingly resilient and evermore insatiable, a monstrous testament to the old adage what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
Dunham’s paintings are the products of an ongoing shamanistic brew: one part art history, one part Punch and Judy, one part hallucinogen, and two parts time clocked on the analyst’s couch. Dunham’s career can be characterized by its rigorous indefinability, as his works dip freely into the realms of abstraction, figuration, surrealism, graffiti, pop, even cartoons, without ever settling loyally into any one of them. Exploring the relationship and the tensions between abstraction and figuration, Dunham’s is an additive, revisionist process. His paintings, as well as his prints and drawings, are intricate layerings, even palimpsests, of images and erasures-topographies of spontaneous gestures corralled and incorporated into a whole. After moving to New York in the early seventies, Dunham quickly gravitated to artists like Dorothea Rockburne, Mel Bochner, and Barry Le Va. His proximity to such figures gave Dunham the opportunity to school himself in ideas more conceptual than classical. Coming of artistic age himself in the late seventies, Dunham’s decision to paint was, then, a self-conscious choice to engage with a quite specific set of concerns and productive limitations that painting could offer. When he became a presence in the era of the now-mythic eighties, Dunham’s works appeared to have little in common with those by painters like David Salle, Eric Fischl, and Julian Schnabel, though, indeed, his works can and should be read productively against theirs. Dunham’s paintings were compact, non-narrative, and anything but glamorous, and they commanded the attention of a small but dedicated audience. Some critics linked Dunham to painters of his own time period-from Bill Jensen to Sigmar Polke-but he was most often appended to historical genealogies, heralded as the descendant of artists as canonical, yet diverse, as Wassily Kandinsky, Salvador Dali, Arshile Gorky, and Philip Guston. It is fruitful to expand this mapping and to read Dunham’s images alongside Dierick Bouts’s 15th century theatrical corporeality, Hans Bellmer’s surrealist pedophilic poupeés, and Jean Dubuffet’s forays into art brut in the 1950s.
In the early to mid-eighties, Dunham worked on an intimate scale and his images, abstract at a glance, were like Petri dishes teeming with a life form that was visceral and weirdly sexual. Painting directly onto wood veneers-elm, oak, pine, rosewood-Dunham engaged with the world by way of appropriating its surfaces. In Fourth Birch, 1983, for instance, Dunham traced the knots and ripples of wood, infusing them with fleshy colors-purples, peaches, pinks-which insisted on and highlighted the polymorphous, anthropomorphic shapes embedded in the whirling, striated surface. Wood grain revealed vulvas, penises, lips, fingers, entrails, anuses, and some body parts that weren’t quite recognizable. Dunham’s was clearly not purely abstract painting-it teased too explicitly with nameable forms; yet it was by no means pure figuration-the characters fluctuated between form and formlessness. Working in a liminal space between genres, Dunham insisted that things be allowed to stay unfinished, organic, even ugly.
Slowly, these fluid, nearly single-cell forms began to coagulate and develop pronounced outlines, becoming rude and more insistent. Like bulbous fish outgrowing a small aquarium, they appeared distorted and monstrous, pushing up against surfaces they had previously occupied with some decorum. And Dunham, Frankensteinian painter that he is, encouraged their bad behavior by allowing the shapes to dictate; he left the small wood compositions behind, opting to work on large, multi-part ragboard panels. Purple Shape  is a bulbous animal, flailing its swollen limbs across a stark background, which teems with protoplasmic squiggles reminiscent of Cy Twombly’s glyphs. One has the sense that the bulging shape is about to grab or grasp or suck or speak. By the time Dunham painted Red Studies Itself , however, the shape has assumed definite (and aggressive) form. Sprouting upside down, like a creeping fungus, the creature is interpretable as a large square head, its complexion an angry magenta. The no-longer ambiguous slit has acquired teeth, which are clenched and bared. The canvas is dotted with a coagulated viscous substance (actually paint-drenched Styrofoam balls), which continues to expel itself from deep inside the beast’s head-an exploding pustule or cyst buried in the core of the organism in which it grows.
Yet nowhere do we see creatures more ironically alien than in Dunham’s paintings of the late nineties, when his characters find themselves in direct relationship with one another, inhabiting a world that feels distinctly human. Here are mobile, discrete beings, albeit blind and with noses that are also arsenal-like dicks (complete with scrotum sacks and pubic hair). Running after one another, attempting to flay, screw, or steal, it’s often unclear whether the characters in Dunham’s world are fighting for survival or merely pursuing sadistic satisfaction. In Demon Tower, 1997, the characters, all ruddy reds and glowing oranges, chase each other across the face of a bubble-gum pink building that might be a square planet. One figure ejaculates or pisses into another’s mouth, one flicks a bullwhip at another’s teeth, while others simply grimace and growl. In Beautiful Dirt Valley, 1997, a female figure, an amorphous mass of buoyant breasts (a contemporary Venus of Willendorf) squats in a crevice between two hills. Blocky male figures rush toward her, squirting semen and gunfire at her fleshy body, in an effort to impregnate or destroy her-in either case attempting to assert their power and take hers.
In Dunham’s most recent paintings, executed over the last two and a half years, a minimal black and white landscape and solitary character take the stage. In this, the Mesokingdom series, Dunham’s sexual galaxy has emptied out, and a single existential character, explicitly male and unexpectedly formal in his tall top-hat, intently assesses his surroundings, occasionally succumbing to them as he becomes them. In Mesokingdom Six (Lost), 2001, for instance, the figure’s head and shoulders project horizontally across the canvas. The grimacing visage lies facedown, inanimate, perhaps dead, prick-nose limply dangling, bared teeth doubling as the lit windows of a hillside cabin. His top-hat intersects the rolling hills, an ineffectual dam sandwiched between two snaking streams. The character has become topographical, easing into the fault-lines and crevices that make up his schematic surroundings. All literal perspective is dispensed with; the figure could be huge or the landscape miniature.
Dunham’s lonely traveler first appeared in a group of paintings immediately preceding the Mesokingdom series. Titling these works The Search for Orgone, 1999-2001, Dunham appropriated a term coined by the outlaw psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich to refer to an oceanic life force, a force carrying with it both curative and destructive potential. Perhaps we glimpse Orgone unexpectedly in the relentlessly repeated landscapes of Dunham’s Mesokingdom, by returning to tropes found in his earliest works. Now, in formal attire, the human animal eases back into the primal, unconscious depths from which Dunham first coaxed his creatures. In keeping with Freud’s hunch in Beyond the Pleasure Principle that there is an inherent, if truly illogical, force that propels living beings as insistently toward a primeval, inorganic state as toward continued existence, here Dunham’s figure is uncannily continuous with the trees and earth around him, ironically mastering his surroundings by giving into that archaic nihilistic urge rather than struggling to escape from its grasp.
-Johanna Burton, Joanne Leonhardt Cassullo Curatorial Fellow