Marlene Dumas paints victims: victims of oppression, abuse and misfortune. The way she paints has a damp pathos – soft big shapes: bodily, slightly shameful like a wet patch on a bed.
Her Tate Modern retrospective begins with Rejects, a composite of her signature ink and wash heads on loose sheets of paper. They started as rejects from other works but also appear as rejected individuals: wonky, dazed ghosts sometimes with their eyes cut out to reveal (more successful?) eyes beneath.
Dumas’ oil paintings have a similarly diluted aesthetic; she suggests skin, hair or moody environments with the minimum of pigment suspended in puddles that sometimes appear accidental – she always avoids any predictable depiction of the human body.
Dumas works exclusively from photographic sources which means she paints not just an individual but the position that individual holds in the media, be that a newspaper or a pornographic magazine. Sometimes we feel her sympathy for her subjects but often there is a disturbing amorality as in her ‘portraits’ of Osama bin Laden and that of his son, memorably quoted on the subject of his father: “he hated his enemies more than he loved his children”.
The handmade-ness of Dumas’s works contradicts her use of photographic and digital imagery so that she unites the two poles of visual representation – her deceptively sloppy execution cancelling out the unfeeling objectivity of mechanical observation.
The almost negligent ‘thinness’ of Dumas’ style, the sourness of her colours and the sickly nature of her subject matter are features she shares with a coterie of fashionable contemporary artists – Tuymans, Sasnal, Peyton and to some extent Richter and Doig. Are these artists reflecting an accurate view of the world today? Everything appears polluted, de-energised, only half there.
While the beauty and emotional charge is undeniable in the Marlene Dumas exhibition, one does feel in need of an invigorating walk and a wholesome meal afterwards.
Exhibition continues until 10 May 2015, more information and book here.
Written by a Thoroughly Modern Man, Chris Kenny.