There is some thing enigmatic about Carroll Dunham’s work, even though the painterly vocabulary he employs seems to be clear-cut. Working with bold planes of color and pretty much cartoonish outlines, Dunham usually depicts naked human figures in imagined natural landscapes, populated with naïvely rendered trees and birds, pet dogs and flowers. In his paintings and drawings of significant-breasted, thick-thighed ladies bathing, or of hirsute men wrestling a single an additional, Dunham makes it possible for the viewer to come across lifetime in vivid, animated motion. And however, there is a palpable opacity to his subjects: Who are these half-Biblical, 50 %-science-fictional figures, with their button-like nipples and dim tufts of pubic hair, their bodies splayed jarringly in opposition to an indifferently cheerful landscape? What is the intent and which means of the obscure rituals that Dunham paints these characters engaging in, with their eyes averted from the viewer, as if hesitant to have their personal customs disturbed or even appeared at?
The dropped-from-outer-room oddity of Dunham’s protagonists could remind us that the artist’s path to the figurative nude has been unconventional. Born in Connecticut, wherever he attended Trinity University, Dunham moved to New York Metropolis in the early nineteen-seventies, and commenced doing the job as an assistant to the painter Dorothea Rockburne. His possess get the job done was motivated by the awesome-to-the-touch, pared-down, publish-minimalist strategy of Rockburne and her milieu, wherever art was getting “thought of as a philosophical workout,” Dunham advised me. “I experienced a really, quite reductive vocabulary in my function.” From the late nineteen-seventies as a result of the nineteen-eighties, Dunham’s paintings and drawings hewed closely to abstraction, depicting spare, systemic whorls of line and shade. And however, as the many years went on and his job created, Dunham found himself significantly drawn to depicting the human determine, initially as component of a semi-summary pictorial language, from which sure repeating symbols nonetheless emerged—top hats, guns, mouths, penises, vulvas—and then, significantly, in the thoroughly fleshed-out visuals of adult males and gals, a prosperous vein that he has now been pursuing for virtually two decades. “My full thing as an artist is backing into factors,” he instructed me. Later on, he additional, “At some position, everyday living commences creeping in.”
Now, at seventy-two, Dunham is a single of the most thriving and effectively-respected American painters of his generation. His work has been gathered by quite a few art establishments in this article and overseas, among them the Whitney Museum of American Artwork, the Museum of Fashionable Art, and the Museum Ludwig. Most a short while ago, his paintings had been demonstrated in a solo exhibition at the Eva Presenhuber gallery, in Zurich, exactly where Dunham depicted his common women and adult males not independently but with each other, for the initial time, in acts of copulation. (For the to start with time, as well, these topics ended up painted inexperienced.) Given that the early nineties-eighties, Dunham has been married to the artist Laurie Simmons, with whom he has two children—the director, writer, and actor Lena Dunham, and the author and activist Cyrus Dunham. The pair shares their time amongst a property in Connecticut, where Dunham also keeps his portray studio, and an condominium near Union Sq.. I have been a lover of Dunham’s do the job for the past decade—a compact ballpoint-pen drawing of his, in which a bare girl is depicted from the back again, is a single of my prized possessions—and, a few of many years in the past, I fulfilled him and became a lot more intimately familiar with his paintings when I wrote a catalogue essay about just one of his series. Lately, I acquired to dive even further when I sat down with the artist at his New York Town home for a discussion about portray, the overall body, repression, and family members.
You’ve just not long ago returned from Zurich, where by you had a one particular-particular person display at the Eva Presenhuber gallery, which has been your gallery for around a 10 years. I appeared at the images on line and I saw that, even even though the artwork is extremely much of a piece with your previous get the job done, for the very first time your people are . . . green?
That is a major improve. It’s rather a adjust.
For the initial time, far too, these characters, adult men and girls, are getting intercourse.
It is been in my head for decades, but it’s the 1st time I have at any time figured out how to make paintings operate that experienced males and ladies with each other in the exact paintings. They look to be copulating so there’s a little something for them to do jointly. It took me decades to consider a way that I could perform with a issue like that without it staying gratuitously sensationalistic. That’s the way it goes with painting, for me. It just takes a prolonged time for points to occur about.
But even with your figurative visuals where by there is not copulation, one could feel of them, possibly, as sensationalistic, in the feeling that they have very graphic orifices, they have appendages . . .
I just was attempting to make things that felt honest in phrases of how a single is fascinated by human bodies. Obtaining a single and on the lookout at them. And I totally reject any association with porn or everything like that, for the reason that which is just not an fascination of mine. As I have informed men and women for several years, the images that entail ladies to me have additional to do with the idea that everybody has a mom than they do with any idea about sexuality, per se. And the visuals of adult men which do require pairs of individuals messing with each and every other, that has as a lot to do with my encounter of obtaining horsed about with my brother. At minimum on a aware stage, it has absolutely nothing to do with sex.
Is it for the reason that, for the painting to have a thing to do with sex or porn it would have to attempt to titillate, and these photos are not intrigued in that?
If you can uncover me some child somewhere who’s jerking off searching at images of my paintings, I’d enjoy to meet up with them. But I uncover it really not likely. [Laughs.] Which is just not the zone. There is very little about that in what the paintings search like or in the intention driving them, as far as I can see. And I’m not stating that to be disingenuous. Our tradition has relegated thinking about the human physique to some quite creepy domains, but art’s been all around an awfully extended time, and the human physique has been a matter considering that the beginning.
But anything which is exciting about your work is that it can also be creepy—not in a sexual way, exactly, but in that hunting at it will make us confront something that we’re not always thinking about. When we’re sitting down right here, participating with every other’s bodies, in the very same way we do on the subway, or in a loved ones, there is a concerted repression. Views of people’s protruding penises or their orifices are not points that are prime of intellect.
I concur wholly. I assume that is accurate. But which is how I see artwork, I guess. Artwork allows for factors that we really do not use in our working day-to-day social area to fully grasp every single other, to categorize each and every other. Artwork is a form of totally free zone. I see things that I consider are substantially much more provocative on the sides of buses right here in New York than I do in my personal perform. And maybe that means I’m blind to the effect of what I’m creating.