Beyond possession: Marlene Dumas and the mobilization of subject, paint and meaning
Now living in Amsterdam, Marlene Dumas was born in Cape Town and graduated from the University of Cape Town with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in 1975. She studied psychology in Holland for two years (1979--1980). Since then she has had numerous exhibitions and her reputation has steadily grown. She has participated in high profile exhibitions such as Documenta 7 and 9 (in 1982 and 1992), the Bienal Sao Paulo in 1985, and the 1995 Johannesburg and Venice Biennales. Her work is represented in the South African National Gallery by a series of portraits called The Next Generation. In 1999 a major touring exhibition of her work was launched at the Museum of Hedendaagse Kunst, Antwerp.
Notwithstanding the call for a pluralist, inclusive approach to artmaking, the 'possibilities' of painting continue to be marginalized. Installation art and photography have dominated the art establishment in recent years, as though these provide the only viable methods of interrogating the relationship between representation and reality. It seems that painting has yet to shake off its association with contested modernist notions, such as idealism, positivism, universality, essentialism, and the related notions of catharsis and empathy with which modernism naively explained the production and reception of art. It is more than a decade since Thierry de Duve called on painters to address 'the idea of (painting's) rebirth as language' (1986:17) -- a difficult task given the burden of its history, particularly as regards oil painting. For the medium has traditionally incorporated so well the analogy between possessing and a way of seeing that it may seem suitable for nothing but image commodification (Berger 1972:88). Moreover, As Norman Bryson put it, painting's theorization in terms of 'its own propaganda as the re-presentation of perception' has led to its 'unthinkability as sign'1 (1983:130).
This essay explores the strategies Marlene Dumas has employed to circumvent the perceived limitations of painting and how her work problematises painting, representation and subjectivity in the light of postmodernist concerns. In her work painting returns as sign rather than reflection of a pre-given reality and the possibilities of painting are defined in terms opposed to its traditional association with notions of possession. My approach to Dumas's work centres specifically on the problematics of painting, representation and subjectivity in the light of poststructuralism's view that all forms of thought and representation are a function of culturally relative signifying systems which produce rather than reflect 'reality'. Any notion of a given external reality thus recedes in the face of the sign systems which mediate it. As Ernst van Alphen (1997:251) points out, what distinguishes Dumas's work is that, though aware of the 'ideological screens' impeding straightforward reference, she does not yield to the impossibility of referring, but 'fights, while referring, against the conventional "names" which were not given by her'. Similarly aware of poststructuralism's threat to subjectivity, Dumas negotiates the decentring of the subject while, at the same time, refusing to accept the notion of its death.
It is through her provocative analogy between the female figure and painting that Dumas targets these conceptual issues. A quick overview of her titles and texts shows that her main modus operandi is to draw a paradigmatic and metaphorical relationship between the figure (usually female) and the signifying operations of art (especially painting), intervening in what Sylvia Eiblmayr (1995:11) refers to as:
an imaginary agreement within our symbolic system which has existed ever since Pygmalion ... [that] femininity is equated with a passive status 'as a painting'.
In her paintings and texts Dumas unabatedly draws parallels between femaleness and painting;2 though seldom without irony, so I do not want to suggest that she propagates a romantic or essentialist relationship between women and paint. Quite to the contrary, I will argue that she uses the analogy so as to intervene in Western art's traditional equation of women and painting, in order to expose the assumptions beneath our common conceptions of vision and understanding. Through this analogy Dumas suggests new ways of reading paintings and attempts to restore subjectivity to the subject, to the painter and to painting as an activity.
I will explore her negotiation of the problematics of subjectivity and painting, particularly with reference to The Painter (1) and then pursue the relationship between subjectivity, painting and meaning with regard to the Pin-ups and Magdalena series. The connection I draw between Dumas's use of paint with the restoration of subjectivity stands in opposition to painting's historical relation to notions of possession, as outlined by John Berger. ('It defines the real as that which you can put your hands on' (1972:88).) My central contention is that, for Dumas, painting becomes an emblem for the inaccessibility of meaning to notions of possession and, concomitantly, the deliberate frustration of the desire to master and objectify women as much as meaning. Before discussing the works, Dumas's position in relation to the key conceptual issues will be considered briefly.
'I want to be a referential artist. To refer is only possible to something which has already been named. (But names are not always given by you)' (Dumas quoted in van Alphen 1997:251). Unike many of her contemporaries who play within the confines of media images, Dumas refuses to surrender the notion of a personal 'reality', while at the same time admitting the difficulties posed by the myriad of simulacra which reality has come to mean. She is aware of this ambiguous position: 'I am an artist who uses second-hand images and firsthand experiences' and 'People have always referred to me as a "natural" but I work with ... artificiality all the time' Turner 1997:99 &101). To begin with, she concedes to the inherent violation and artifice involved in representation:
My people were all shot
by a camera, framed,
before I painted them ...
They didn't know by what names I'd call
them (Dumas 1993:22).3
Her use of second-hand references such as photographs, newspaper and magazine clippings -- she never works from life (van Alphen 1995:73) -- can be viewed as an immediate concession to the artificiality of reality and the impossibility of a direct transparent relation between image and referent. Thus, she rejects mimetic4 notions which suggest that an image can neutrally record reality. More than mere concession, however, her reliance on photography amounts to a conceptual strategy which critiques the tyranny of media images to which reality has allegedly been reduced. 'She requisitions from reality the very pictures it manifests, with the exact purpose of removing them from this reality' (Pohlen 1993:84). Often this involves a painterly intervention into what traditionally would be photography's role, as with the Models5 and the Pin-Ups series, so that these traditions are challenged. If her use of photography6 brings her work into the realm of representation, the use of text functions to undercut the conventions of that realm. Much has been written on how text and captions serve to consolidate the ideological power of the visual image (usually the photograph).7 Reversing this logic, Dumas uses text to undercut the ideological expectations we have of certain images, as though where the image loses potency in the face of stereotypes, text or title motivates an alternative point of view. This sentiment comes through in her comment that: 'A title determines the way one looks at the image. What is depicted is desire, what is central is deficiency. It all becomes more complex.' (Pohlen1993:85)8
Negotiating the subject
Dumas's position in relation to poststructuralist theories of subjectivity are, as I will argue, similarly ambiguous. Such theories disclaim notions of a coherent unified identity on the grounds that identity is necessarily mediated by ideological representations outside of one's control. Thus the subject or the artist, can no longer be perceived as 'the source or end of meaning' (Eagleton 1983:104) but is held, instead, at the mercy of the sign systems at her disposal. In terms of Jacques Lacan's theory, for example, the notion of unified selfhood is predicated on a misrecognition, for the image of selfhood perceived during 'the mirror phase' is illusory -- it 'prefigures a unity and mastery that the child still lacks' (Grosz quoted in Guldimann 1997:195). This 'recognition' of subjectivity marks the entry into the Symbolic order -- the given social structure defined through language and ideological constructs such as gender.9 The implication is that subjectivity is 'strait-jacketed' at the moment of its emergence and any notion of 'owning' one's identity is illusory, not merely for the child but for the human subject per se. I will argue that Dumas's vision of subjectivity is situated somewhere between a view of the body as decentred, framed by social determinants, and as site for the restoration of subjectivity and mobility.
Dumas contests what Fredric Jameson (1991:15) refers to as the 'depth model' of aesthetics whereby artistic expression is based on a 'conception of the subject as a monadlike container, within which things felt are then expressed by projection outward'. Jameson (1991:12) speaks of how it pressupposes a whole metaphysics based on such oppositions as inside/outside; essence/appearance; latent/manifest; authentic/inauthentic/; signifier/signified, -- oppositions discredited by poststructuralism. Dumas targets the assumption of a correspondence between appearance and essence, whereby human identity is conceived of as a stable essence open to discovery and whereby the artwork is conceived as withholding one essential meaning.
There is a crisis with regard to Representation. They are looking for Meaning as if it was a Thing. As if it was a girl required to take her panty off as if she would want to do so, as soon as the true interpreter comes along. As if there was something to take off. (Dumas quoted in Eiblmayr 1995:12)
Her analogies between femaleness and painting, desire and interpretation, expose the inadequacy of essentialist models for understanding how painting signifies. In her work the female figure stands (up) for painting, against the history of its fetishisation, and for the way it signifies and eludes a closed interpretation -- its refusal to yield a core essential meaning.
Introducing the Painter
The Painter (1) alludes to the traditional equation of Woman with Painting, both equally available for the consumption of the male gaze. Dumas disturbs both sides of this equation by choosing as her painter, not only a female, but a naked little girl, thus upsetting also 'the traditional identification of the passive erotically displayed and readily available body with what is female ...' (Eiblmayr 1995:12). Dumas foregrounds the impossibility of unveiling a universal, natural and ideologically neutral figure of the body, even if it is that of an 'innocent girl', for what we see is mediated by our cultural conditioning. Can an image of nakedness be made without evoking a sexually covetous attitude? Dumas probably considers it unlikely. Yet she plays on this fact in order to resist it, confronting us with our own 'sexpectations' by offering an 'inappropriate exemplar'10 of the nude female painting -- a naked child. Like Manet's Olympia, The Painter refuses to be passive or demure. Olympia caused discomfort because she was a prostitute, The Painter causes discomfort because she is a child, expected to be innocent, yet her expression betrays a mixture of innocence with guilt, vulnerability with accusation.
'Hey, what is it with the girl with the blood on her hands?' one collector asked after seeing The Painter (Turner 1997:101). We are told she is Dumas's daughter covered in smudges of paint (Turner 1997:101) but the conflation of blood and paint is undeniable.
It seems as though the 'Painter' had been caught in a 'cruel game', and were then, as punishment, forced to appear in the painting (Eiblmayr 1995:11).
What is the 'cruel game'? Dumas texts suggest she views all representation including her own as inherently violent. More specifically, though, I propose that The Painter metaphorically alludes to painting as patricide and betrays a significant ambivalence regarding the power of the subject and the power of painting as a tradition. I interpret The Painter as allegory of both the struggle for subjectivity and of the contemporary painter's predicament in the light of painting's recent modernist history.
Recuperating the subject
The Painter's hands seem at once to suggest power and powerlessness, raw agency and limp passivity. The former is expressed through colour and the latter through the flaccid, indeterminate shape of the hands, suggesting the chance effect of stains rather than the willed modelling of brushstrokes. Both in their visual effect and in the way Dumas has painted them, they at once suggest subjectivity and its effacement, recalling the simultaneous emergence and emptying of subjectivity in Lacan's mirror phase. The life-size scale, the confrontational placement of the figure, the scrutinizing eyes and the ambiguous play between surface and form all suggest the possibility of The Painter being read as a mirror reflection. Eiblmayr (1995:11) suggests the same:
in this undetermined spatial situation she finds herself in (her feet are cropped and have no surface to stand on), in this flat non-space ... the figure appears like a painting within a painting. 'The Painter' and 'The Painting' thus confront each other in a metaphorical relation (italics mine).
According to Lacan,11 the shift from symbiosis with the mother's body towards the self-recognition of the mirror phase occurs when the father enters and disrupts this harmonious scene. The father signifies what Lacan calls the Law, and it is through surrender to the Law of the Father, that the child enters the Symbolic order -- the pre-given ideological structure that sets limits on subjectivity, (and through which the very notion of subjectivity is defined). The Imaginary order, on the other hand, continues to operate in structuring the ego, for the ego is based on identifications with images as if they are a part of ourself, -- a 'narcissistic process whereby we bolster up a fictive sense of unitary selfhood by finding something in the world with which we can identify' (Eagleton 1983:165). While the Symbolic comprises the 'glue of ideology' that creates an illusory sense of wholeness, the Imaginary involves the way we are propelled by a sense of lack to identify with images outside ourself, and it is this implicit and intimate dependency on identification with images which Dumas's paintings play upon.12
I suggest that The Painter stands poised on the threshold between the Symbolic and the Imaginary order, aware of being defined through the Law, but negotiating some form of liberation through appealing, as painter, to the Imaginary.13 If the 'paint' on her stomach and thighs suggests she has been bruised and violated, the 'blood' on her hands and her guilty expression assures she has avenged herself. The painter may necessarily be guilty of patricide, for the young female artist who would stand outside of the Symbolic, to access subjectivity free of patriarchal limits must, at least, attempt to kill 'the Father'. Painting, on Dumas's terms, is one way to wrest subjectivity from its source -- to struggle against the limits of repressive stereotypes and ideologies, to assert the Imaginary realm of image identifications against the constraints of the Symbolic order of strict divisions and difference.
The Painter may also have been caught 'red handed' in the ignominious act of painting during a conceptual era in which painting is almost taboo. The ambiguous treatment of the hands is again significant. Modernism has as one of its cornerstones the privileging of the gesture as sign of originality. At the same time there was that current in modernism (led by Duchamp) of contempt for the hand (which continues today in the displacement of 'craft' by technology, photography and conceptualism).
In French there is an old expression, la patte, meaning the artist's touch, his personal style, his 'paw'. I wanted to get away from la patte and from all that retinal painting (Duchamp quoted in de Duve 1986:115).
The phrase 'as stupid as a painter', one of Duchamp's favourites, disturbed Dumas during her student days (Dumas 1992:42). It took many years in Europe, working with photomontage, before she realized her 'dream of painting' (Fleck 1995:1) indicating her ambivalence towards paint as a medium. While currently regarding herself as closer to Abstract Expressionism than naive realism (van Alphen 1995:73) her relationship to this tradition is qualified: 'It's expressionism ... but I don't drown the imagery in the gesture' (quoted in Turner 1997:99) and her use of expressionist gesture is counterbalanced by a surrealist deferral to chance: 'the balance between control and letting go' (quoted in Kinley 1996:1). Such balance of techniques is evident in The Painter. In the tradition of painting of this century, these two methods -- expressionism and surrealism14 -- may be said to stand respectively for the centred15 and the decentred subject -- for egoism and submission -- a paradox recalling the emergence and emptying of subjectivity expressed in the hands of Dumas's young Painter.
The Painter thus testifies to Dumas's relation to recent traditions of painting -- the need to take stock with its ignominious past, its phallocentric history, its relation to possession (her painter's hands are visibly empty) -- and her refusal to accept wholesale the assumptions of her predecessors (especially if one considers the 'egoistic' brand of expressionism that ermerged in the eighties). Like the daughter who must 'kill the Father' to stake the grounds of her identity, Dumas, the painter, must do the same. And she suggests through the use of articles -- The Painter, rather than A Painter -- that this is the necessary predicament of all painters at the turn of this century.
Naked and revealed The Painter nevertheless refuses to expose one essential meaning. The economic approach, the paucity of information, foregrounds the role of cultural context in furnishing meaning to the work (no less a role than context plays in strictly conceptual art). The exposure of gender in conjunction with the title alone sets in motion the process of signification. On first sight the image recalls the dictum 'what you see is what you get' but its signification further suggests that there is a whole lot more to what one sees than, and in, what one thinks. As Bryson (1983:85) puts it: 'If the image is inherently polysemic, this is not by excess of a meaning already possessed by the image ... but by default, as a consequence of the image's dependence on interaction with the discourse for its production of meaning, for its recognition.'
Dumas consistently foregrounds the status of figure as representation (and paint as sign) through her formal choices -- the tension or ambiguity between image and ground, surface and figural form, and through the titles of her figure paintings which insist on their status as representations rather than transparent 'reflections' of the world, as is the case with the following two paintings under discussion. In The Cover Up16 the theme of revelation and display is pursued. A young girl lifts her skirt to cover her face. It is not clear whether she is in the process of undressing or deliberately hiding her identity. Her robust body provides no compensation for the lack of face, frustrating the viewer's desire for identification on which Dumas's work so heavily relies. The bland palette and almost unmodelled form suggest a resistance to meaning and revelation. As both subject and sign hers is a classic image of decentredness -- for if one aspect is revealed, another is simultaneously concealed. Van Alphen (1995:72) is more conclusive: 'The child, still having subjectivity, tries to protect herself from the culture that makes models at the price of defacement ... . While protecting her face, she hides it, at the cost of exposing her body. Culture is stronger than she is.' Yet given the logic of the decentred subject Dumas seems to imply that no type of image or stereotype can ever be definitive.
In Pregnant Image (2) the decentring process is manifest in Dumas's actual method of creating the image by grafting the photographed head of a friend onto the artist's own abdomen and letting the legs form out of the paint (Bloemheuvel & Mot 1995:23). Bearing in mind the title, the issue of decentred meaning again evolves. If the image is pregnant with meaning, its meaning is closed and inaccessible, not given to display and revelation. The facial expression and the protruding belly are cryptic and estranged, the latter all the more so for being blatantly exposed (the shirt would never button up however much one tried) -- so that meaning is less accessible than if the woman were graciously draped with the usual cultural trappings.
These paintings interrogate 'the dialectical model of essence and appearance' (Jameson:12). Indeed, they suggest that painting, by its inherently ambiguous nature, cancels out such notions, for the process of painting -- its reliance on layering (on simultaneous discovery and concealment) -- seems to operate in opposite terms; in terms of elusion and only partial revelation, and thus its meaning resists possession.
The return of the body
In Vision and painting: The logic of the gaze, (1983) Bryson demonstrates the inadequacy of the Western tradition's perceptualist account of painting. This account explains painting as the unmediated transmission of percept from the painter to the viewer where both are conceived of as disembodied 'retinal reflectors'. The status of image as 'site of production' is thus suppressed, as is the body as site of the production and reception of the image. This 'erasure' of the body is manifested in the predominant Western painting technique -- Bryson coins it 'the painting of the Gaze' -- which tends to efface and disavow 'deictic markers', that is, those signs which foreground the process of production and the durational time of the painting practice.17 Although Western media such as tempera, encaustic and oil are such deictically expressive media, says Bryson, they have been treated as erasive and self-concealing. This suppression of deixis denies the role of painter and viewer as 'agents operating through labour on the materiality of the visual sign' (1983:150). He points to the paradoxical position of the body in this tradition:
we are given the body with an intensity of disclosure and publicity ... but it is the body, in a different guise, as picture, to be apprehended simultaneously by the Gaze [which] posits the body only as content, never as source (1983:164),
In other words, only as object, never as subject. Against the Gaze, Bryson posits the Glance, and against erasure, the trace of the body:
Painting of the glance addresses vision in the durational temporality of the viewing subject; it does not seek to bracket out the process of viewing, nor ... does it exclude the traces of the body of labour (1983:94)
The aesthetic value of the trace resides precisely in what can be inferred about the body from the course of the trace: the brush strikes the paper in media res, and as it lifts from the paper its energy is not yet spent; the viewing subject is constructed gymnastically, as an organism whose somatic memory understands the origin and insertion of the stroke as it understands the origin and insertion of its own musculature ... two real-time processes, of the trace and the glance, meet at the interface of the picture plane (1983:117).
Dumas's work intervenes in the tradition of the Gaze, much as she intervenes in the equation of woman with painting. Her paintings attempt to restore the body as subject, both in terms of subject matter and her approach to painting which fulfils many of Bryson's criteria for 'painting of the glance'. In her work, the body returns with a vengeance in the guise of its traditional role -- fixed and framed as food for the all-consuming gaze -- as the Pin-up girl and as Mary Magdalene, 'the Holy Whore'. In the Pin-ups particularly (3 & 4),18 Dumas serves up exaggerated versions of the typical nude -- 'the spectacular and protean transformations of a body under constant visibility and display,' (Bryson 1983:131). Yet she does this only to undermine the protocol governing the 'painting of the gaze'. For one, these works insist on that physicality which according to Bryson (1983:12) undermines the consumption of image as 'pure idea'. Dumas's expressionism re-enacts the relationship between bodies -- the body of the artist, the 'model' and the viewer. The foregrounding of brushwork and deictic markers evoke in the viewer a simultaneous apprehension of the the body, based no longer on idealizing attributes but on its somatic and physical reality. Signs of corporeality abound in the Pin-ups and Magdalenas: for example, the profusion of hair; the suggestion of grubby skins; the aging skin and puckered lips of Magdalena (5). These features represent the 'particularities of nakedness' -- a phrase Dumas uses to define the 'naked' as opposed to the generalities of the 'nude'. (Hutchinson 1994)
Bryson (1983:131) calls for a 'painting of the glance' which 'conceives of form in dynamic terms, as matter in process ... [as] rhythm, the impress on matter of the body's internal energy, in the mobility and vibrancy of its somatic rhythms'. This description fits Dumas's 'erotic presences'19 both in terms of her physical relationship with her medium (which mediates the body of the subject) and in terms of the subject's relationship with her own body, which is based equally on those somatic rhythms and impressions. This is evident in Magdalena (6) where the hands suggest she is at once covering and 'touching' herself. Though on display, Dumas's women are in control and in possession of their bodies. Self-possession is evident particularly in the Magdalenas in spite of the way they nonchalantly, knowingly, submit to the frame of self-exposure. Van Alphen (1995:74) notes how they are installed according to their size so that '[t]he smaller ones, at first sight easy to "take in" ... possess such striking eyes that you don't dare it. The larger ones, which force you to look at their crotch, tower above you and dominate you'.
Writers have remarked on features in Dumas's work which may be called deictic features or traces: Ulrich Look refers to the 'vague and displaced relation' between paint and image in her work; the degree of distance between the painterly gesture and the image which it mediates (cited in Pohlen 1993:88). Bloemheuvel and Mot (1995:24) refer to how 'the paint suggests representation without entirely merging with it'. As Dumas herself puts it: 'It becomes like a Rorschach test. You can't read and interpret each splash literally' (Turner 1997:101). These features point not only to the physicality of her approach but to her exploitation of the inherently ambiguous qualities of her medium so that the subject of the painting to some extent, always 'exceed[s] the fixities of representation'.20 Van Alphen (1995:70) invokes Dumas's deictic approach when referring to how her work explores 'the tension between the body as a spectacle seen from a distance and the body as lived reality,' (italics mine). He notes how the flowing ink (or paint, one might add), frustrates the focused and distanced view of the pornographer (1995:70). One of the distinguishing features of painting for Dumas is that: 'Unlike a photograph, you can't "take" a painting and then absent yourself (the taker)' (quoted in Kinley 1995:2). These features foreground Dumas's mediation, through her own body, of the subject's body so that the latter becomes irreducible to a fixed object for voyeuristic consumption but instead evokes a somatic identification with the image as a source of mobility for the subject.
The liberatory potential Dumas finds in paint, however, needs to be qualified in terms of her aforementioned relation to photography for she plays the painterly off against the photographic and vice versa. In her work, the photographic surface is, to an extent, simulated through a relatively thin application of paint. Writers have referred to her 'taciturnity in the matter of paint' (Pohlen 1993:88) and her simulation of the glossy or 'slippery' pools of colour and unfocused light deriving from the Polaroids often used as sources (Schaffner 1991:61). Kinley (1996:1) refers to 'the overlit bleached out quality' which she relates to the Polaroid, but which possibly derives from Dumas's frequent use of the epidiascope to project the photographic image onto the canvas. These photographic 'residues' index Dumas's images to their often ideologically loaded sources which, in turn, are mediated through painting in order to undercut the objectifying attributes of the photographic realm. It is significant that Dumas does not painstakingly 'rectify' the distortions resulting from the epidiascope, but capitalizes on them, taking them to an 'expressionist' conclusion. They serve at once to alert the viewer to the status of the painting as representation and at the same time offer possibilities for painterly interpretation.21 Exploitation of such distortions are evident in the 'gothic' elongated Magdalenas, for example the 'disappearing crotch' of Magdalena (7) (where its delineation merges with that of her long hair); the 'bleaching out' effect evident in her face and legs. These features probably derive from the epidiascope. The resulting effect tends paradoxically to desubsantiate the figures, serving to counter a voyeuristic attitude towards them, while other features continue to insist on their physicality. Dumas's own comment about the Pin-ups applies equally to the Magdalenas. Unlike pornography, she argues that 'their intensity evokes an almost devotional response ... "[they] are more like religious icons with a shift of nuance" ' (Turner 1997:101).
This dialogue between the photographic and the painterly puts Dumas at one remove from both the 'impersonality' of the photographic and the totalizing 'person-ality' of traditional expressionism. The latter draws on the autographic mark as signifier of the artist's independent genius, 'with a visionary capacity to see beyond surface reality' (Pollock cited in Farber 1992:23). In comparison, Dumas foregrounds her dependency on the artificial realm of media representations and, as I have indicated, her texts, imagery and working methods target such essentialist assumptions. Her painting practice would seem to occur at the interface between the suave surface of photographic 'reality' and the ruptured distortions of a subjective 'lived reality'. In some cases her choices regarding the installation of her paintings are designed to encourage identification (see note 12) -- or alternatively to offset the painterly by mounting the paintings close to the ceiling, 'spectral and out of reach' (Schaffner 1992:26).
The personification of painting
In the Magdalenas and Pin-ups Dumas extends the analogy between woman and paint to one of 'the image as prostitute' (Dumas quoted in Kinley 1996:2).22 As such these works elaborate on the relationship set up between the female figure and the role of visibility and display in the signifying process of painting. Her centralization of the subject, their dramatised poses and their scale, function to invoke the tradition of the spectacle, in order, however, to subvert it. Such invocation is deliberate in her choice of subject matter -- pin-up girls and prostitutes -- theatrically staged for visual display and, whether saint or pin-up, holding the promise of revelation and fufilment through the act of looking (much as the act of looking, according to modernist theory, was meant to miraculously reveal the meaning of the artwork). Dumas co-opts this voyeuristic tradition in order to comment on its iniquities and its failures. She restages desire in order to expose the impossibility of its fulfilment. For as I have argued, she undermines the legitimacy of notions of revelation and possession in her texts, her imagery and in her deictic approach which encourages physical identification with the image rather than its objectification.23
Dumas's affirmation of painting as deixis may be more than a matter of technical execution. Recalling the analogy between the female figure and painting, or the image as prostitute, it becomes possible to view the Magdalena's and Pin-Ups -- in their various degrees of cover-up and display -- as personifications of painting as deixis. (The term deixis comes from deiknonoi, to show). As such, these paintings intervene in the objectification of both women and art. They are apt models for painting, these prostitutes and pin-up girls, who make a profession of revelation and concealment quite literally in their bodily movements and their simultaneous self-display and self-possession, their 'self reflexivity' -- a term Bryson (1983:88) uses to define the term deixis. The treatment particularly of hair, hands and dress -- their gestural, mobile rhythms -- suggest these stand for the painterly signifier, which layers the body of the subject without succeeding completely to reveal or to conceal (8). In these works we see the convergence of the trace of the artist's body, the mobility of the subject, and the concurrence of revelation and concealment involved in painterly signification. Dumas's use of paint to mobilize subject and meaning in this way amounts to the overturning of that notion of possession of which Berger suggests oil painting, above any other medium, is the emblem.
Dumas's work demonstrates that painting, like all modes of representation, does not occur outside of the ideological realm. She firmly rejects a view of painting as an unmediated reflection of reality, as well as rejecting essentialist notions which deny the role of discourse in the work's signification. However, her approach departs from 'hardline' postmodernism in that she refuses to reject wholesale the possibilities of a 'personal' reality and of a relatively 'mobile' subject in spite of its ideological framing. Indeed, like Bryson, she would seem to see the medium of paint -- its physical and ambiguous qualities -- as a means of recuperating mobility for the subject and of mobilizing the signifying possibilities of art.
*The author wishes to thank Marlene Dumas for waiving the copyright on the images reproduced in this article.
1 See Bryson's (1983) deconstruction of perceptualist accounts of painting; how the Western tradition's reliance on such accounts has impeded any conceptualization of the social character of the image and its reality as sign. See also Bal & Bryson (1991) for a more recent theorization of the possibilities of a semiotics of painting.
2 The titles of some of her naked women include, for example: The Cover Up; Pregnant Image, Losing her Meaning, Waiting for Meaning, the Image as Burden.
3 Dumas's notes and texts have been collected in the volume 'Sweet Nothings' (see bibliography). I have referenced them according to my original sources pre-dating this publication.
4 Bryson summarizes the doctrine of mimesis as 'a description of representation as a process of perceptual correspondence where the image is said to match ... with varying degrees of success, a fully established and anterior reality'. (1983:38). As van Alphen argues (1995) much of her work is about the failure of the mimetic tradition.
5 Marlene Dumas, Models. 1994. Installation of one hundred drawings, mixed media on paper, each drawing: 62 6 50 cm. (Dumas 1995:24--35.)
6 Dumas has mentioned how radical enlargements of scale, for instance, 'increased the sense of abstraction concerning the picture plane' (quoted in van den Boogerd et al 1999:116). This is most evident in her large portrait works.
7 I am thinking of Roland Barthes work, for example.
8 In The originality of the avant garde and other modernist myths Krauss refers to certain painters' use of text in terms of 'bowing to the implied necessity to add a surfeit of written information to the depleted power of the painted sign' (Krauss 1994:219) (italics mine) -- an interesting observation in relation to Dumas.
9 The implications of Lacanian theory for feminism are well known, as are the implications for the female artist for, as Cixoux states:'One is always in representation, and when a woman is asked to take place in this representation, she is, of course, asked to represent man's desire' (quoted in Owens 1993:75). Dumas's work addresses this problem head on, as will become apparent during my discussion.
10 Van Alphen (1995 & 1997) uses this term in his discussion of Dumas's portraits.
11 The following explanation is drawn from Eagleton 1983:164--169.
12 Writers frequently refer to mirror when discussing her painting and there is a sense in which many of her figural representations operate as such, thus implicating the viewer in identifying with the image. This is a consistent strategy in her full figure works (whether naked or not) and explains, amongst other features, the centrality of the figures, their relatively life-size scale, their confrontational expressions, why they are usually hung so as to create a one-to-one relation between viewer and image.
13 Dumas herself has referred to being affected by the Law, albeit in more general terms: 'The LAW is already written ... . You don't have to respect it, but you have to know its loopholes in order to escape it: or remake it' (Dumas 1992:41).
14 The distinction I make here is theoretical given that the history of modernism has involved various admixtures of expressionism and surrealism, both equally manifest, for example, in the Abstract Expressionism of artists like Pollock.
15 See Farber (1992:20--23) for a discussion of how the autographic mark of Abstract Expressionism, as signifier of originality, 'is often used to inscribe power relations between viewer and artwork -- relations which instate the status of mark as a patriarchal concept' (quoted from Farber's footnote on p 28).
16 Marlene Dumas, The Cover Up (1994). Oil on canvas, 200 6 100 cm. Private collection (van den Boogerd, et al 1999:73).
17 Deixis is a term Bryson borrows from linguistics. For an in-depth account of his application of the term see Bryson 1983:87--89.
18 The other stolen Pin-ups are as follows:
Marlene Dumas, (Pin-up)Slight Delight. Watercolour on paper, 125 6 170 cm.
Marlene Dumas, (Pin-up)Pink Puff. Watercolour on paper, 125 6 170 cm.
Marlene Dumas, (Pin-up)Arms up with lipstick. Watercolour on paper, 55 6 45 cm.
Marlene Dumas, (Pin-up)WienerWald. Watercolour on paper, 125 6 170 cm.
Marlene Dumas, (Pin-up)Indian Summer. Watercolour on paper, 125 6 170 cm.
All these 'pin-ups' were stolen from a Belgian art museum in 1996 (Schulte, Oliver & Timm, Maik 1996. The stolen 'pin-ups' of Marlene Dumas. Kassel [online]. Available:<URL: http://www.uni-kassel.de/fb22/Rob_scholte/dumas/>).
19 Dumas qualifies her 'nudes' as such. Interestingly, she regards as irresponsible images 'where (for example) nudes become signs and not "erotic presences" ' (quoted in Schaffner 1991:61) whereas Bryson suggests erotic presence is a prerequisite for the mobilization of the sign -- 'desire and the body, desire of the body, are exactly the terms which the tradition seeks to suppress' (1983:122).
20 This is Bryson's phrase: 'If there is power intrinsic to painting ... it resides in the capacity of its pracitice to exceed the fixities of represention' (1983:170).
21 Dumas tells of a line between the legs of a woman in one of her paintings which viewers insisted represented a third leg, 'but it concerned only a mixture of the liberty of drawing [zeichnung] with the photographic picture.' (quoted in Fleck 1995:1).
22 See Dumas's text 'The Muse is Exhausted' (Dumas 1993).
23 One of the ironies of this discussion is that the seven 'Pin-ups' included here were stolen from a Belgian art museum in 1996.
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