Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Marlene Dumas: The Painter

Chapter Three: The Painter.

The figure is taller than you. Two metres high, and the dark eyes force
themselves at you. It is hard to remove your eyes from meeting her stare. Yet
you do, and note the large head, and round bare tummy.
The shadowed cleft between her legs shrinks away and draws you to her large
powerful hands, covered in paint; one red, one blue. You step back.
The sparsely covered pale canvas is dominated by these three points, her two
hands, and the single stare of her eyes.
The stare, her stare, the intensity of her eyes that speak more forcefully than
clumsy words formed in her childish mouth.
“Here I am. Naked. Look at me, but see that with my eyes and my hands, it is my
look that can overpower yours.”

The stare of the girl depicted in “The Painter”  has been described
as ‘manful’ , and yet it is an expression in Dumas’s work, largely confined to
her depictions of babies  and young children, such as the subject of “The
Painter”. The painting is known to be based on a photograph of Dumas’s
daughter, Helena, then a five-year-old. Other portraits of Helena convey her
stare, while another figure “The Cover Up’ depicts her in the coy pose, common
to little girls, of covering her head with her dress; simultaneously hiding her
gaze and revealing her body. Due to its title, “The Painter” could just as
easily be interpreted as a self-portrait or as an allegory of the female
painter; herself naked, scrutinised, infantalised and yet able to master the
gaze of others by her own hands and eyes.

Dumas’s paintings of children have often been interpreted as a type
of ‘feminist realism’, a fairly superficial depiction of the subject matter of
motherhood, like painters such as Moderson-Becker and Paula Rego. Yet Dumas’s
works cannot be read in such straightforward terms. Her works, even of
children, are charged with ambiguity. Some children function as allegories
(such as the Equality, Justice and Liberty series, commissioned for the South
African Parliament in 1993)  in lieu of the traditional use of women’s bodies,
while others (such as Group Show)  have uncomfortable associations with child
Recently Dumas collaborated on a video project where she filmed Helena while
asleep . The nature of the camera as voyeur on a sleeping unconscious
adolescent is redolent with terrifying forebodings of objectification, sexual
coercion and even paedophilia. When such a ‘gaze’ is wielded by a woman; the
child’s maternal protector and guardian of chastity, the images become much
more puzzling and unnerving. Is she offering her daughter for sale or for
seduction? Is she asking the viewer to be complicit in a sexualised or a
maternal gaze? Does she know what she is doing? The video of Dumas’s sleeping
daughter, Helena, could easily be a depiction of her own loving gaze upon her
daughter. However it also lends itself to misinterpretation and appropriation
in the interests of masculine, pornographic or paedophilic eroticism. This
ambiguity indicates the enormous levels of assumed masculine dominance of
visual culture, where Dumas’s own maternal gaze is subsumed in favour of being
an imitation of or collusion with eroticised masculine viewing regimes. The
close relationship of mother and daughter also implies levels of coercion of
Helena that wouldn’t be present if Dumas had used a professional actor or
model. The issues raised by Dumas’s images of Helena have plagued the reception
of the work of Tierney Gerson in the Saatchi Gallery, whose photographs of her
own naked children were deemed pornographic and obscene.

Photography and video are culturally situated as to operate metonymically for
the gaze of the voyeur. “Cinema isn’t I see its I fly” . The camera tricks the
viewer into a belief in the verisimilitude of the image, and a sense of
complicity in its depiction. As stated by David Salle “the great thing about
pornography is knowing that someone set this up for you to see”.  The cinematic
gaze, when transplanted into photography invites voyeurism, and the detachment
of the viewer from an expressive sense of their own corporeality. In the light
of Dumas’s previous works it could be assumed that the recent video of Helena,
was made in order to interrogate the distinctions between the two media. After
all, Helena is almost an adult and it is only her face that is exposed to the
camera.  It is the notion of the camera as unsurveilled by the subject, as
mobile in time and space, and as sinister in its potential to capture an
unconscious moment of revelation in the subject, that contributes to its
uncanny sense of power. If the video by Dumas is part of her own visual
interrogation of the expressive specificities of each media, then this
indicates the need for a sophisticated feminist analysis, that goes beyond a
celebration of ambiguity for its own sake. The acute discomfort provoked by
aspects of Dumas work, highlights the need for feminist art theory to
articulate the nature of its own inquiries and challenges to sexism, as well as
facilitate an imaginative and critical engagement with women’s own implication
in gendered viewing conventions.

Dumas almost always paints from photographs, which vary from Polaroids she
takes herself, to clippings from magazines, posters and movie stills. Dumas has
been quite articulate in her explicit avoidance of using posed models in
depicting the figure, citing her subjects as ‘second hand’. In stating
that “You take a photograph, but you make a painting” Dumas articulates a
distinction between the two mediums, exploiting and challenging the perceived
verisimilitude of the former. Dumas’s images feature an explicit avoidance of
painterly tromp l’oeil techniques – her faces and figures are flattened and
illuminated in an imitation and exaggeration of the distortions of photographs,
which highlights the slippages in photography between the subject and its
representation. The subjects of Dumas’s works appear not so much to be the
figure, but actual representations of it. In exploring a plethora of images of
women in visual
culture, Dumas also explores and problematises her own voyeurism, on other
women, and on images of women, and she takes this to the extremes of discomfort
and ambivalence.

Aside from the domination of the image by the gaze of the subject, the painted
image of Helena provides a level of assurance because of the refractory nature
of painting itself. It is arguable that painting lends itself to a greater
residual trace of the artist’s ownership, that resists recuperation more easily
than mechanical or hyper realised media does. Dumas freely appropriates a
plethora of photographic images from an enormous range of sources, and locates
her creative agency in her manual reproduction of such images. Dumas’s works
are compelling because of her strategic position as the female author of
sexualised images that have been traditionally created and viewed by men. In
negotiating charges of complicity in the male gaze, Dumas mostly uses the
refractory safety net provided by her choice of medium citing Margritte’s
famous title “ceci n’est pas un pipe” to side-step issues of objectification
and paedophilia in some of her works of children . The detachment of authorial
agency from the representation of ‘reality’, is an important aspect of the way
in which Dumas interrogates her own and other’s voyeurism. Dumas locates her
contestation of the gendered codes of visual culture, not in her position as
voyeur, but in her activity as an artist, working from manufactured images.

In photographic reproduction, the subject matter is almost always confined to
the subject within representation, with painting and drawing the nature of
representation itself becomes the subject matter. The heavily expressionist
style of many of Dumas’s works also grounds her images in her own (sexed)
corporeality. The determinacy of such corporeal traces is a contentious issue
for feminists, however the physicality of the painterly representation provokes
a type of engagement, which questions the nature of the images in the first
place. Feminist art historians such as Griselda Pollock have expressed
hostility to expressionist elements of painting, because of its link to the
masculine narratives of abstract expressionism, epitomised in Clement
Greenberg’s writings on Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Authorial
intention always poses a quandary for feminist interpretations of art. To a
certain extent, feminist writers have been sympathetic to the deconstruction of
the subject in Butler, Barthes and Foucault, largely because the subject itself
has been inscribed as masculine.

While much feminist theory is sympathetic to a deconstruction of the subject,
many feminist art historians rely heavily on biographical information about
living female artists in order to decode their work. Much feminist
interpretation of abstract art by women consists of a lengthy game of
deduction; often layering a biographically laced interpretative gloss on some
fairly opaque works . Dumas’s own work is deliberately presented in catalogues,
monographs, reviews and web-sites, within the context of the artist’s own
writing and biographical information. A consideration of Dumas’s oeuvre has to
include an engagement with her textual as well as visual elements, and the two
have to be considered in unison. The combination of text and pictorial elements
makes Dumas’s works reminiscent of the images made by Barbara Kruger, only
where Kruger’s intent was bound by the frame of each work, Dumas’s spills over
into her own writings about her work, as well as her personae as an artist.

“I am the third person, observing the bad marriage between art and life”  is a
statement by Dumas, which illustrates her use of text in a way which offers a
provocative view of her own position as an artist, in relation to her life and
work. The uneasy boundary between the artist and image has been explored by
Michel Foucault, in his discussion of “Las Meninas” by Velasquez , and has been
further explored in Jacques Derrida’s writings on the “ergon” and “parergon”.
Derrida’s ideas on the frame, or boundary of an artwork as a determinant of its
meaning were explored by Martin Jay  and Lynda Nead, in her discussion of the
nude.  According to Derrida, art cannot be separated from its context, and the
framing and presentation of the work; the ‘parergon’ operates not so much as a
boundary between art and life, but as a central site where the meaning of the
work, the ‘ergon’ is mediated in relation to its context. Derrida’s
interrogation of the situation of an artwork extends to the position of the
author, or artist, in relation to the social context of how meaning and
intention is generated. Elizabeth Grosz’s reading of Derrida’s writing on the
signature provides a more subtle means of resolving the quandaries left in the
wake of a deconstructed authorial residue.

In “Sexual Signatures” Grosz discusses the role of authors and texts
(specifying her definition of ‘text’ as any product of a discursive practice)
according to a reading of Derrida’s ideas on the ‘signature’ of a work.  Grosz
states that the author doesn’t exist before the text as such, and is not in a
position to articulate a set of intentions that will actually determine the
work itself. This makes the task of interpreting art according to the perceived
or stated intentions of the artist a slightly irrelevant task; slightly, but
not entirely. For Grosz also states, inasmuch as an artist doesn’t precede and
cannot entirely direct the outcome and reception of a work, the work is still
linked to the artist; still bears the trace of the artist, and the means of
acknowledging that trace is in the signature. For Grosz, the signature operates
as a hinge between the artwork and the artist; not belonging to either realm
but a means of linking the work with its author. Grosz cites Buenavista’s ideas
on linguistic subjectivity; stating that there is a difference between the “I”
within a work, and the “I” that creates the work, in order to clarify this
relation more fully. In terms of Dumas, this acknowledges of the
constructedness of her identity, within her images, and within the written
texts she presents as her personae. Grosz cites Derrida as delineating three
modalities of the authorial mark on a work. The first is the manifest link
between the work and the nominal identity of it’s creator. The second modality
relates to the ‘idiomatic marks’ or the less intentional aspects of authorial
expression that leave their traces on a work. The third aspect involves the
author as a subject of the very act of creating the work. Grosz ties this to
Butler’s ideas on (gendered) subjectivity being a product of its social
expression. The role of the signature is not as an immutable sign of
authenticity or artistic residue. Derrida describes its power in contradictory
terms of being at once forgeable and irreplaceable, and being dependant on its
reception as a signature in order to assume its status, in verifying the work
of the artist, as a work, derived from authorial agency .

Grosz insists that residues of authorial intention are always present in an
image, and can limit the extent to which an image may be recuperated,
appropriated or misinterpreted by its audience. Thus the viewing context can
largely shape how a work is received, but it cannot always completely determine
or override factors influencing its original production. The acknowledgement of
a type of ‘textual viscosity’ by Grosz, indicates that there are material
properties in an image that may exert a resistance to the intentions of the
artist, as well as its interpretation and appropriation by its audiences. This
idea of ‘textual viscosity’ allows for a nuanced appreciation of Butler’s ideas
of performance and performativity of Gender Roles. A text, and image or a
performance can be seen as a site for the construction of gendered
subjectivity, however Grosz describes this relationship as a two way street.  
They do not manifest or express a prior or interior subjective condition, but
constitute its manifestation, which in turn shapes the subject itself. However
texts, performances and images do not only act to shape their enunciating and
receiving subjects, but also bear the specific corporeal  residues of the
subject within.  These authorial traces render a work as something more than
simulacra, linked, to varying degrees to an implied relationship to a
particular individual. Locating subjectivity within the corporeal presence of
an individual, Grosz states that ‘bodies and discourses produce and transform
each other.’  Grosz proposes that while there is ‘no correct’ reading of a
text, there are definitely ‘inappropriate or incorrect interpretations’, which
indicates one possible source of the distinction between parody and pastiche.
The ‘resistance’ or ‘viscosity’ of a text or image, may reside in its social
context, but is often linked to the nature of the signature, or to the specific
material qualities of the signifying practices themselves.

In terms of Dumas, Grosz’s notions of the signature offer an appealing solution
to the conundrum of where and what to locate as her authorial agency. Many of
Dumas’s images are bound within her use of text; either titles or comments
drawn onto the works themselves link the works to notions of a speaking
subject. Most of Dumas’s works engage in an ambiguous play on the location of
the ‘speaker’; it is unclear whether the “I’s” and “We’s” relate to the
subjects of the paintings or the artist herself. In signing the works, Dumas
asserts that the textual commentary derives from her hand, linking herself to
the content, but not suturing herself within it. Grosz’s ideas of ‘material
viscosity’ are most engaging when applied to the physical qualities of Dumas’s
actual images. Dumas’s ink wash works, such as “the pinups” series, “die
Wolkenkeiker”, The Shrimp”, “The Alien” etc . are influenced by a type of ‘one
stroke painting’  internationally popularised in the 1980’s by Japanese-
American artist Tamagico Isogawa . Dumas used ink on paper, completing the
works in a single set of actions over the paper, securing her bodily gestures
to the life size images. Whoever views the images, invariably sees the physical
gestures of the artist who made them and the physical presence of the artist
enters into the subject matter of the work. Given such a reading, the gestures
of the artist also function as a type of signature; securing the artist to the
work by  “this insistent, unwearying, potentially infinite repetition of
something that remains, every time, irreplaceable.”  

The embodied presence of the artist in an image is not an unambiguous area for
feminist art theory. Griselda Pollock’s has described painting as “privileged
in modernist discourse as the most ambitious and significant artform because of
its combination of body and trace, which secures by metonymy the presence of
the artist. These inscribe a subjectivity whose value is, by visual reference
and cultural naming masculinity.”   This problematises the artists gesture as
the source of any feminist agency, and arguably expresses a reluctance on the
part of feminist theory to actually deal with the specificity of the female
sexed body.  Grosz is herself reluctant to specify the physical properties
which would indicate a femin(ine)ist presence, writing that ‘one may guess at
the sex of the painter from the shape, height or direction of the brushstrokes
but may be liable to error.’  However Grosz insists on the presence of the
body, as a sexed entity; constructed and regulated by social forces as well as
its own drives, as a positive determinant of a femin(ine)ist agency. This
allows for a more subtle evocation of sexual specificity by acknowledging
feminism as corporeal, as bearing a specific relation to a material reality
beyond (male dominated) social inscription.

Grosz’s ideas on ‘Corporeal Feminism’ are not intended as a reclamation of
essentialist modes of idealising femininity, but as a means of locating and
specifying the female body as a subject of gendered discourses, in the wake of
anti-humanist critiques. Within feminist art theory the feminine has always
occupied an uneasy position, itself mirroring the types of idealisation and
denigration projected onto women generally within patriarchal culture. Inspired
by the 1970’s work of Judy Chicago and Miriam Shapiro, Lucy Lippard described a
female aesthetic, which had a strong correlation with the notions of
an ‘écriture feminine’ explored by Helene Cixous. Ideas of fluidity,
indeterminacy, ambiguity, repetitiveness and experimentation have been linked
to the expression and reclamation of a denigrated feminine morphology and the
subversive manifestation of subjectivity denied or suppressed by dominant modes
of discourse. While this has incited multiple poetic descriptions of some
elegantly textured colour field paintings, it has the potential to reduce
women’s expression to a determinist association with their bodies; bodies that
are largely untheorised and undescribed except as singular abstract entity,
supporting the projections of male dominated discourse.

Ideas of a feminine language have been further explored by Julia Kristevas’
writings on the semiotic – a type of non symbolic space of meaning and
expression, generated in the pre-linguistic connections between mother and
infant. According to Kristeva, the subject always retains traces of
the ‘semiotic’ which finds its expression in the subversive practises of avant-
garde writers and artists.  However, Grosz observes that, experimentation is
not the exclusive privilege of women or feminists, and as critics of Kristeva
indicate, her own writings exclusively link the avant-garde semiotic subversion
of the symbolic order to male artists such as Mark Rothgo and Henri Matisse. In
Kristevan theory women have been specifically excluded from being able to
articulate the feminine semiotic, because they are deemed to be too bound by
the symbolic order, to be able to master and challenge it. Regardless of
Kristevas problematic relationship to feminism, her argument does indicate that
the idealisation of femininity implicates itself in a detachment from actual
women, and from feminist agency.

The projection of ‘feminine sensibility’ onto the avant-garde is itself a
reflection of the role of avant-garde as a type of contained outlet for the
excesses of mainstream culture. Historically, the ‘carnivalesque’ was
associated as an outlet and a regulator of desires and fantasies rendered taboo
by restrictive European feudal cultures, and in modernist society, this role is
encompassed by the transgressive posturing of its avant-garde sectors. To
associate the feminine with the avant-garde, or with the carnivalesque,
reinforces ideas of women’s bodies as the site for the projection of masculine
fantasies of transgression and liberation, or inversely the control of that
transgression. These ideas extend from the most banal in the “she made me do
it” excuses for rape, to the distortions enacted on representations of women’s
bodies throughout modernist movements in twentieth century art, to the more
complex associations and disavowals that occur in contemporary ‘drag queen’
performances in queer subculture. The fascination in phallocentric cultures
with representations of women or of femininity, is arguably little more than
the fascination of men with aspects of their own subjectivity, projected onto
the spectacular phantasm of “woman”.  For this reason, women’s own relationship
with ‘the feminine’, or with ‘woman’ is both compelling and extremely difficult
to articulate.

Despite her critique of proponents of a femin(ine)ist ‘style’, Grosz does not
eliminate the possibility for a specifically female presence in the style of an
artwork. Grosz refers once again to Derrida’s notions of the signature, as a
mark of the author (or artist), operating in a number of modalities in which to
inscribe a tracing of the sexed morphology of the artist within the body of the
work. Grosz regards these traces, as superabundant, rather than essential. They
provoke a speculative engagement with the work, rather than a definitive
interpretation. Grosz’s ideas of a corporeal feminism, do not propose a revise
ideal of sexed embodiment, but argue for a phenomenological consideration of
morphology as both an artifact of social construction, and a primary mediation
of cultural imperatives. Grosz’s desire to include corporeality in theory
discourse stems from a desire, not only to recuperate a deconstructed subject
into humanist discourses, but to challenge the disembodied character of
phallocentric theory. Grosz cites the neutrality of knowledge as a product of
the repression of men’s corporeal specificity in the knowledges they dominate.
Women have been included within these discourses in order to function as the
(absent) bodies of men. As a consequence women’s own embodiment is almost
completely absent in most cultural discourse.

In terms of the visual arts, the absence of women’s corporeality, physical
desires and fears has been acknowledged since Linda Nochlin’s famous inversion
of gendered viewing regimes in the image “Buy my Bananas”  used in her 1973
article “Women As Sex Objects” . Nochlin argued that women’s desires towards
men were so repressed in visual culture, that they were invariably associated
with ridicule. This has been reflected in various feminist attempts to invert
heterosexual viewing regimes; from Sylvia Sleighs portraits of Phillip Golub,  
to “Playgirl” centrefolds and Germaine Greer’s recent calls for ‘more male
crumpet’. Where such attempts at imaging feminist heterosexuality are
successful, they usually rely on a repetition of visual conventions from
homosexual male pornography. Dumas has painted fewer images of men than women,
but these have been associated with the dilemmas above. “The Particularity Of
Nakedness”  was “criticised as being passive, to homosexual, too horizontal”  
while her more recent works “explicit, sex in leg, male nipples”  are seen to
be derived from gay porn, from images controlled by and structured around the
desires of men.

In trying to formulate a cultural discourse that would acknowledge the specific
corporeality of women, on terms not constructed by phallocentric society Grosz
acknowledges the enormous amount of domination such male centred viewing
regimes have. Grosz’s proposed strategy is to return ‘the body’ as the central
subject of all discourse, and to acknowledge the specificity of morphology and
social inscription that produces certain types of embodied subjective
experiences’. Grosz favours the interrogation of existing phallocentric texts
in order to expose the projection of male embodiment onto women, which many
such texts involve. Grosz distinguishes this from the deconstructive approach
favoured by critics such as Griselda Pollock. Where Pollock views
phallocentrism as a monolithic ideology to be dismantled, Grosz favours a type
of critical engagement with the multitude of sites where meaning itself is
structured according to phallocentric regimes. For Pollock, it would appear
that phallocentrism is something external to the feminist subject, who can
separate herself from dominant regimes of viewing, speaking and desiring. By
contrast Grosz acknowledges a more nuanced appreciation of women’s own
imbrication within phallocentric culture, which structures women’s engagement
with dominant culture as a continual process of associations, contestations and

In analysing the ambiguous work of Marlene Dumas, Grosz’s model for
a ‘discursive positioning’ of cultural productions as feminist or otherwise
offers a flexible means of analysing the ambiguous nature of images produced by
artists such as Dumas. It also offers a possibility for an engagement with the
sensuality of Dumas’s work in an articulate and critical manner. Grosz
interrogates images as feminist or otherwise, according to three lines of
inquiry. Firstly Grosz examines the context of an artwork, and demands that a
feminist image facilitate the interrogation of its own context by illuminating
the patriarchal conventions in which it is situated. Dumas’s oeuvre is
characterised by a clear challenge to ‘existing paradigms’ of textuality.
Within the visual arts, by the breadth of her subject matter, Dumas brings all
facets of visual representation within her often satirical, witty and
imaginative gaze.  In ‘Stripping Girls’  Dumas transgressed the male dominated
public and imaginative space of the female strip tease in order to represent
the spectacle of women’s erotic bodily display according to the identificatory
and ambivalent view of women. Dumas’s crude graffiti style renditions of
women’s bodies are grounded by provocative text within the image, which
articulates the presence of a female viewer and artist who provokes an
identification with the figures, rather than with what is being done to them.

Grosz’s second group of criteria refers to how the trace of the artist in the
work may influence its reception as feminist. This is the closest appeasement
of essentialist tendencies that Grosz makes. The ongoing marginalisation of
women artists makes any images identifiably produced by women interesting to a
feminist project, however Grosz postulates that a feminist style of authorship
subverts notions of singular ownership, control and mastery that are implicit
in phallocentric paradigms of authorship. Dumas’s works are firstly compelling
because of her strategic position as the female author of sexualised images
that have been traditionally created and viewed by men. Dumas’s use of
expressively gestured style of painting detaches her images from realist modes
of subject representation and includes her own response as the subject matter
of the works. Dumas’s drawings and paintings are a disturbing mixture of
elegance and a type of strange awkward haste. This indicates a level of
humility and humour in the capacity of Dumas to subvert her own technical
mastery in the interests of a more playful approach to representation. The
physicality of the painterly representation provokes a type of engagement,
which questions the nature of the images in the first place. In photographic
reproduction, the subject matter is almost always confined to the subject
within representation, with painting and drawing the nature of representation
itself becomes the subject matter.

Grosz’s third postulate is to demand that feminist images “facilitate the
production of new and perhaps unknown, unthought discursive spaces – new
styles, modes of analysis and argument, new genres and forms that contest the
limits and constraints currently at work.”  This facet involves one of the most
engaging aspects of the work of Dumas, which is the depiction of female
sexuality and desire in a sensuous and witty manner. Dumas shows that it is
possible for female spectators to have an imaginative engagement with erotic
images of women, and for female artists to appropriate such images from the
confines of male voyeurism. Dumas also resolves the separation of
representation and style which has plagued so much work that is lauded by
feminist art theory. Many erotic or provocative images, lauded by feminists,
such as drawings by Nicole Eisenman  are poorly executed and only enjoyable
because of their signifying content. Dumas’s images by contrast, often
unabashedly embrace sensuous and scopophilic marks, textures and colours that
denote her own corporeality. By linking the abstract qualities of sensuality,
fluidity and exquisite technical mastery to representative images, Dumas
delineates that it is possible for women to engage with the figurative images
in an idealised, and yet enjoyable manner.


Blogger Corny said...

You think my drawings are poorly executed? wow. well, pop by my studio sometime and I'll try to prove you wrong. I've made alot of fast drawings and some are intentially "ugly" but I love to draw and think it's one of my strengths as an artist. I teach Life drawing and often have models in my studio, I like your Blog.

8:18 PM  

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