He, She and It
Meyer Schapiro first met Fernand Léger at his 1935 retrospective at MoMA.
In return for an offer of services as a translator, the French master walked the young scholar through his show. At lunch the next day the two discussed public art in Europe. Léger asked Schapiro, “What would be recommended if I had time to see only one work of art in all of New York City?” That afternoon, Schapiro brought Léger to the basement of the Pierpont Morgan Library to see the Beatus manuscript (an illustrated commentary on the Apocalypse by a Spanish monk of that name). Five years later, when the painter returned to New York as a refugee in 1940, he had adopted figures placed against white bands of strong color in a way that recalled the legendary 10th-century Latin manuscript.
As much as I was aware of Carroll Dunham’s recent departure from his well-known streetlike opera of biomorphic orgies towards a more robust rectilinear configuration and visual presentation, this new evolution is as elusive as Molly Nesbit’s “Things Fall Apart,” the brilliant poetic fable she wrote for the catalog. The most intriguing and abiding surprise in Carroll Dunham’s exhibit at Barbara Gladstone is the great leap the painter has taken in offering the viewer his new interest in the reduction of form and format orientation.
What initially began as a series of black and white paintings in 2000 has effectively evolved into a reconstitution of his painting process altogether. First of all, the speed of execution, as opposed to the familiar simultaneity of his slowly rendered figure outlines, and an impulsive repertoire of mark-making suggest neither slowness nor quickness of hand. It is rather measured and deliberate, as if premeditation had a greater role than the act of painting itself. The landmark image of a man with his hand outstretched, walking in black and white landscapes, aiming guns and shooting blanks, has now been fashioned to become compartmentalized in the frontal plane of the canvas. The figure has been magnified and cropped in a variety of ways and to his great discomfort, as witnessed by his grinding teeth and the dismemberment of his head and upper body.
To Dunham’s credit, his structural solutions via an idiosyncratic hybrid of cubist devices and an abstract expressionist pictorial defiance of gravity are compellingly inventive while at the same time insistent on the horizontal and vertical grid, which dominates various close-ups. This is most evident in the series of smaller canvases “Particular Aspect, Numbers 1 – 8, 2003” (four horizontals and three verticals, all identical in size, 53 by 61 inches). The robust black outlines have transformed themselves into architectural calligraphies, as if they formed a stained glass window designed by the team of Sollages, Guston, Hélion, and Mondrian. The imagery and the economy of form is so well composed within the painting that one hardly notices the cropping.
In the next four larger diptychs, “Rotation/Ocean A, B, C, & D, 2003” (also identical in size, 75 by 91 inches), in spite of the addition of smaller black diagonal lines evenly painted over the designated portion with brown color and the fluctuating, repeated gesture in blue, giving the man with his hat a specific environment, the structure as a whole is less stable. It is, however, built onto seemingly agreeable components—the fragmented form and its natural abstraction, the uniform pairing of the two canvases, one horizontal with its vertical counterpart and vice versa. To destabilize this structure, Dunham has designed a framing device that ties the two canvases together. Here the contrast between the thinly painted surface, which appears to be all matte, fluid, and bleedingly slippery, and the physical weightiness of the frame is magnificently odd. But if one looks closer, one discovers that the black outlines in the paintings and the frame share the same thickness (true of the other group of paintings as well).
Ten stainless-steel sculptures, all painted black, are titled “Capture Shadows.” As the extended domain of the female figure, they are predominantly biomorphic and silhouetted shapes that have been so cut, bent, leaned over, and folded that they are barely capable of exerting themselves in three-dimensional space. Here I suspended my response to them for a while until I realized that they are indeed charming in relationship to all the single canvases—I’m sure that it is a deliberate effort to keep them in the two smaller galleries. They would not accommodate the triptychs in the bigger space otherwise. Again, the choice of a wooden table instead of the conventional pedestal is a brilliant demonstration of Dunham’s succinct visual presentation.
In the end, the story of Schapiro and Léger has little to do with this exhibit. It is as elusive as Nesbit’s essay and Dunham’s work—although one could almost make a connection from Dunham’s recent work to Léger’s famous “Divers” paintings, in the sense that Léger regarded his images as equally valid anywhere in relation to the position of the canvas. And perhaps it has just as much an obvious analogy to the Beatus manuscript as it does to a floor mosaic. (I’m not implying that this is particular to Léger alone, who consistently used black outlines through his figures and related objects in his paintings, however biomorphic, abstract, or figurative: Miró, Mondrian, and Beckmann have done likewise in their work.) Within the context of what one might conjecture to be the whole of Dunham’s enterprise, it is difficult to resist the painter’s ability to relocate himself on new and fertile ground.
TOMASSIO LONGHI is a contributor to the Rail.
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