With an important survey of her work in Tokyo recently, and forthcoming shows at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (NY) and LA MOCA, the work of the South African-born, Dutch-based Dumas continues a steady ascendance. Critical opinion remains divided over whether the work is overrated and sentimental or underrated and subversive and this post shifts the debate to stylistic terms, to issues of influence and invention.
Dumas’ work emerged in the mid 80s, in the wake of Neo-Expressionism and a new concern with the figure, materials and allegory in painting (see also Posts 44, 40 and 26). She was not drawn to extreme or stark versions, but joins the gradual dispersal and divergence to the movement. Just as allegory gives way to anecdote and elsewhere pastiche and parody, Dumas takes up more moderate or intermediate versions, much like Tony Bevan or Kim Dingle, for example. Dumas treats the figure in ways distinct from preceding print models and yet remains peripheral to Neo-Expressionism or later genre sampling.
For the art historian such figures are familiar (Chaim Soutine, Francis Bacon, and Leon Golub are 20th century examples) but a little inconvenient, since their influence is by nature diffuse and works make for especially elusive and ambiguous meaning. In the case of Dumas this meaning centres on a dilation or dilution of sexuality; that begins with the body and nudity, ends with broad and casual painting. Her work is sometimes contrasted with the early work of David Salle and the more anecdotal nudity of Eric Fischl. Dumas rejects the settings and stories of Fischl, the accompanying imagery and accessories of Salle, to instead isolate the figure like a specimen and provocatively link sexuality to infancy, dependence, maturity, medicine and death through teasing hybrids, shifts to proportion, blurring of features (often literally) gestures and painterly abbreviation. If Dumas makes a claim upon broader trends, it is for this deft amalgam.
Dumas occasionally deals in formal groups, even allegory there, but mostly the work is concerned with the single figure presented on a blank background. The work hints at a vaguely scientific genre, but the sweeping drawing and broad brushwork belong to many earlier styles and genre is weakened or too vague by it. Where Salle displays the female nude and often pornographic pose as a kind of remote, ornamental moment and Fischl embeds it in a permissive lifestyle, Dumas absorbs it into a more diffuse scheme. Sex is less explicit but pervasive, even when indeterminate, across race, imperfection and anomaly. It is the baby issue, the body issue, the salutary and sanitary tissue. This elasticity or generosity is expressed in the sweeping line and brushwork, often the literal dispersal of Indian ink to a soaked or ‘bleeding’ surface.
It holds for faces and identity as well. When not full-length figures; her work is often the cropped close-up of a face or impressive suites of them, underlining variation and mutation. Here too she favours the ambiguities between child and adult, male and female, healthy and afflicted, often relies upon just eyes, nostrils and mouth to cue broader, brighter parts, to draw them toward a broader picture, to draw painting to more evanescent identity. And to this it must be said there is little development in the work from the late 80s onward. There are shifts in theme certainly, toward more forthright reference to pornography in the late 90s, to issues of imprisonment and even torture after the turn of the century, but from a technical aspect, she remains committed to her brushy handlings, Indian ink and single figures on blank grounds.
However the issue is not really versatility but effectiveness, not so much the project but its projection. For the advocate of Dumas, her style is rich in its breadth, needs a relaxed technique to accommodate the full array of her content. For the opponent this laxity is the undoing of the style. It has too much to project and projects only half as far, or weakly. When work must rely on more traditional or well-worn drawing or technique, content is similarly handicapped. Just as Dumas may dilute genre by her drawing and nude figures, these in turn are thinned by the exercise, look banal or half-hearted. The links to Fischl or Salle while convenient and crucial, are then tenuous and tentative. In this way, influence or projection does not just matter in terms of history, but like history, seep into the present, the personal and particular. Dumas’ style and the world she refashions promise much, but then must deliver little.