Saturday, 9 May 2015

Marlene Dumas: readings and viewings

I feel really very ill regarding the results of the general election today. Mental despondency, a feeling of depression and helplessness, and actual physical cramps in my stomach all day at the thought of what will happen to this country; at the prospect of what will be a whole decade of conservative rule.

Anxiety, frustration and helplessness; these are themes which link quite nicely with the exhibition I saw at the beginning of the week: the Marlene Dumas retrospective at the Tate Modern.

I hadn't heard of Dumas before seeing the exhibition advertised, but was intrigued by imagery of her haunting and evocative portraits in black ink - a favourite medium of mine. It took me several months before getting to the exhibition as I find ticket prices at the Tate prohibitive. But I finally bought a National Art Pass which got me in half price and was able to satiate my curiosity.

The first noticeable thing about Dumas' work is the lack of colour. The second is the scale. Portraits hang high on the walls, larger than life and hold striking simplicity with a bold outlook. But what must be noted about Dumas is that she never paints from life: all sources for her paintings are second hand, taken from newspaper and magazine clippings, films and photographs.

'Rejects' - Marlene Dumas - Photograph: Tate

As I discovered more about the artist from the work and the exhibition walls, I learnt that she is also a poet. Reams of text accompanies the work, not as a description or explanation per se; but as an extension of the question the artist is posing. Her poems as well as her paintings, then, are more political responses to source material; than portraits in the traditional sense. She makes images from other images and in this re-rendition of her sources, imparts more meanings on top.

'The Widow' - Marlene Dumas, 2013 - Image: Tate

The exhibition ends this weekend, and whilst I do apologise to you readers for leaving it so late to write about it, in actual fact I don't think that you need to see the exhibition in person to be able to appreciate Dumas' work  - or not, however your tastes lie. The juicy themes of sex and death, the paintings on huge scale and the exploration of inky washes are fun; but image-making in this way is just as well appreciated in reproduction. She's known for painting the rich and famous (Naomi Campbell, Princess Diana, Amy Winehouse); as well as faces that editorials pick up on less frequently, such as the series called Black Drawings 1991-2, exploring perceptions of black people during the apartheid in South Africa. But it's her witty and perceptive subtexts which caught my attention far more than the images on the walls.

She writes poetic criticisms of the nature of art and artistic circles; as well as exploring the themes which draw her, and which she also depicts in images. It's the writing that I find most enjoyable and memorable, and the writing that I urge you to explore. I'm going to end this exhibition review with some of Marlene Dumas' writing from 'Sweet Nothings', an anthology of her work published by Tate; as her writing is what I took away from the exhibition, and which made a far more lasting impression on me.



Excerpts from 'Sweet Nothings' by Marlene Dumas 
(edited by Mariska van den Berg; Tate Publishing)

from 'Why do I write (about Art)'
I write about art because I want to dissociate myself from the tone of most art-writings. I am not impressed by ART neither disappointed, because I never believed in ART as the Big White Hope anyway; or saw artists as larger than life.

a) I don't like pompous, purple prose; rather give me a cruel, cold text, with a touch of evil and a hand full of salt to rub in the wounds…

'Pornographic Tendency'
At the moment my art
is situated between
the pornographic tendency
to reveal everything
and the erotic inclination
to hide what it's all about

I am the third person
observing the bad marriage
between art and life
watching the pose and the slip
seeing the end in the beginning.

Die meisie met die spraakgebrek
says yes but means no.

from 'A Girl for all Seasons'
You - stranger - keep your distance.
I do not seek happiness in fulfilment,
but in the intensity of emotions.
And know that I can never love you
but will always avoid you
to spare you my eyes.

My works bear their names,
like one has to bear one's own history.
Drunk with associations and incest,
contaminated by all kind of illness and prejudices,
deliberatly wounded,
so that they wil not become arrogant
and forget their very innards.

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