In a season of mostly poor, uninspiring and irrelevant museum shows, the New Museum of Contemporary Art is currently hosting an exhibition that is giving and receiving copious amounts of love. Celebrated in the most global-minded and least New York-centric museum in the city, the first major survey of the paintings of New York stalwart Carroll Dunham has become one of the few opportunities available to review the work of an important contemporary artist. Partly a celebration of an influential, hard-earned career and partly an exercise in preaching to the converted, Carroll Dunham's long-awaited retrospective has become the season's singular occasion to achieve a rare harmonic convergence: a near unanimous Manhattan art world consensus.
The sort of New York figure for whom the term "art world insider" was invented, Carroll Dunham has spent some 30 years consuming, developing and finally bestowing visual culture on his adopted city. Fleeing the confines of uptight Yankee Connecticut, Dunham arrived in New York like many a young art chicken?wide-eyed, clueless and hungry. Before long, he lined up work with the minimal artist Dorothea Rockburne, in an era when such a relationship signified actual labor and implied artistic apprenticeship. Soon afterwards he made the acquaintance of Rockburne's friends Mel Bochner and Barry Le Va, and learned firsthand (by installing their exhibitions) the rather dull procedures animating their "process-oriented art."
When Dunham turned his eye to painting, he found a limited palette of contemporary examples available for study. What little there was that inhabited the then popular, concept-heavy groove included the work of artists Robert Mangold, Robert Ryman and Brice Marden. The achievements of these artists notwithstanding, New York's postminimal painting crew was hardly Florence's second coming.
From these humble but well-connected beginnings, Dunham slowly and hesitantly began constructing a notion of how to make a certain kind of new painting (the notion of what to paint being then too demodé to resuscitate). A penchant for doodling became an active source of experimentation as Dunham also insisted on registering the evidence of his labors as a "procedural" element essential to his work. Eventually, a generational affinity for Pop Art and popular culture fleshed out the doodles Dunham seemed so instinctively drawn to. Finally, Dunham hit upon a simple, slightly clumsy idea that quite literally canalized his procedural bias and hinted, however glancingly, at a variety of meaningful themes. Painting on "found" wood (panels of pine, birch or elm), Dunham teased out biomorphic forms from the boards' grains, begetting paintings whose associative potential resonated loudly in comparison with the era's rafts of tired, flat, bookish monochromes.
Working up indeterminate but erotically suggestive blobs, globs and glyphs in loud, freakish colors, Dunham poured out his subconscious, warts and all, and slathered it onto his wood panels. Made, Dunham readily admits, under the influence of bucketfuls of cannabis, the panels turned into a loose amalgam of random geometries, intestinal shapes and eviscerated gestures. As finished pieces they were?no matter how much slack one cuts Dunham's stoner art?unregenerately ugly. Timing being what it is, they arrived on the scene in the mid-1980s just as a group of mostly terrible neoexpressionist painters began their assault on postminimalism's anal pieties. By comparison, Dunham's work was bound to look positively brilliant.
Graduating eventually to the full-fledged, cartoony figuration he became famous for in the 1990s, Dunham hit his stride with a signature set of toxically colored, maniacal meditations on war, violence and the primal id. A Boschian ruckus seen through the compound lens of Miro, Gorky, Cy Twombly, Peter Saul and Dunham's hardworking therapist, the canvases the artist eventually began using acquired the physical and artistic dimensions of messy, monumental Darwinian battles for post-apocalyptic survival.
Starring Dunham's eyeless, teeth-gritting, dick-nosed little Hun, the artist's lurid mustard and Pepto-Bismol pink landscapes became explosive, isolated fields of endless confrontation suggesting, like Rorschach blots, humanity's molten core of rage. Psychological, ontological, biological, geographical, environmental and psychosexual, Dunham's polymorphous, gun- and knife-wielding mugwumps ran riot across symbolic acrylic-and-linen Rwandas and Srebrenicas enacting, at their most convincing, metaphorical dramas of familiar hellishness. The fact that they ultimately remained?in the words that give one of Samuel Beckett's most poignant novels its title?"The Unnamable" helped Dunham's distinct pictorial manner retain its mystery long after the paintings' shock wore off.
This is all to say that Dunham?"an artist's artist" as he is described in the exhibition catalog?has over the years become an unavoidable, even invaluable touchstone for many a New York painter. But be that as it may, the New Museum's compact, coherent exhibition of his work does not make a convincing case for Dunham's work as great or even good painting (only the work itself can do that). Incredibly, considering the importance Dunham's painting has assumed lately, the experience of seeing his early paintings in the flesh remains thin and unfocused (the wood panels, for example, look unedited and unrevised). His later work, for all its imaginative sweep, promises ambitious craftsmanship yet repeatedly delivers large-scale illustration uninflected by brushstroke, composition and variety of color or drawing.
Ultimately Dunham reminds one of nothing so much as the work and person of Roberto Matta, the legendary Chilean Surrealist who passed away only weeks ago. Equally influential for a different generation of New York painters (the 50s Abstract Expressionists for whom Matta served as a bridge to the European avant garde), he was also a purveyor of painterly apocalypse who encompassed a welter of interests and influences to which he never ever really lived up. A painter of huge canvases that were equal parts science-fiction fable and erotic nightmare, Matta's imaginative strengths as an artist were eventually bested by his principal weakness: a tendency to sacrifice most of his paintings' features to their illustrational elements. Thus was born a distinct, all-purpose pictorial manner, a Matta style. Dunham, who also shares a tendency to paint the same picture over and over again (even his most recent black-and-white work, despite the grandiose claims made for it, does not vary greatly from earlier work), shares with Matta the deceased Surrealist's two principal distinctions. A crucial linchpin for the development of painting in New York, his work will be remembered not for its inherent qualities, but for the historical leverage it exerted over an unstable, fluctuating scene.
"Carroll Dunham," through February 2, New Museum of Contemporary Art, 583 B'way (betw. Prince and Houston Sts.), 219-1222.