Little Q + A: Carroll Dunham: Millree Hughes x Dennis Kardon x Bradley Rubenstein

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Carroll Dunham, Gladstone Gallery, NYC | April 20-June 16, 2018

"Sailors fighting in the dance hall
Oh man, look at those cavemen go
It's the freakiest show."
David Bowie

Millree Hughes: What is it? How do I know it's good? In the old days the paper would tell you, the TV would tell you. If it was cultural there was one station that specifically dealt with that Now, unfortunately, it is hard to tell. There are too many voices vying for your attention. Which one is trustworthy? If you are an artist or a musician, an actor, or a writer, you can use your judgement. But if you're not, how can you tell, for example, if a painting is worth looking at?

Carroll Dunham has never been willing to talk about what his pistol-penis packing Puritans or his funky female figures are actually about. He has only ever talked about his work formally and how it relates to Art history. How his female figures relate to Cezanne's bathers for example. But I found myself at his last show asking: "Can we talk about the assholes?".

This time is no different. Painted in 2017 they are not necessarily about the American election. Despite that many of the paintings are of two cavemen with bushy manes and floppy dicks battling it out in the woods. I see the wrestling figures from Poussin's Rape of the Sabine Women of 1612 and something of the simplicity and figural dynamism of Picasso's Figures on the Beach of 1931. Dunham creates a great, in the middle, in your grill, physicality. He has stripped the figure back to grubby white canvas contained by a thick black line.  There's a tree green and a sky blue.  But after that there’s not much left on your plate to eat, other than the meat and two veg.

Bradley Rubenstein: That flora and fauna are crucial here. He has painted those with a different hand, they seem more layered on a la David Salle's work than actually part of the scene. And that dog is such weird combination of kitsch cuteness, and a schoolboy reference to dog’s licking their balls. It is that combination we saw with his last show at Gladstone, a Lady Godiva on a horse. There was a series of working drawings that rendered the scene over and over, until gradually you had a childlike drawing, a sort of set of notes on regression therapy, or the kind of children’s drawings of nude family members where the parent is like, "Do I need to worry about this?"

But there is humor here that is both course and refined at the same time. There is a dyptich, or two variations on a theme, of a rear view shot of testicles and anus. In one the anus is on top, in the second, it is balls up. One the one hand it is an almost Picasso-like abstraction, integrating the body into the landscape, like in his late paintings. On the other hand it reminds me of an old Joan Rivers joke:

"So I am in bed last night and my husband says, 'Joan, your box is too tight and your ass is too loose.' And I say, 'Edgar get off my back.'"

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MH: American artists frequently tell you that what you are looking at it is not what they meant you to see. Chuck Close claims that his work is about the formal language of painting. He's just been practicing on what is closest to him. They just happened to be the famous artists of the day. Vanessa Beecroft exhibited a room full of beautiful naked women in Prada heels but only ever talked about them as if they were objects. Jeff Koons is particularly good at pinning some glorious "advert bullshit" to his masthead. It's about desire! It's about beauty! Anything other than what you are actually looking at.

BR: There is something about Dunham's nudes that kind of seem timely now. There are younger artists who deal with the same ideas but in some cases their simple act of painting the nude is political. Noomi Roomi, a Moscow artist said: 

"If we will look back at ancient Greece for example, where homosexuality was common, we'll notice how inspirational was male's body for artists of that time. They depicted both female's and male's beauty because they didn't have any non-hetero taboos, they were opened to both genders.  I guess, the problem of not drawing bodies in sexual context can be seen as that we still have this fear, we still perceive male's nudity as something 'gay.'  Also, women do reflect on themselves -- maybe that's why they paint female's bodies more often, although I don't understand why modern female artists don't explore the male as much. But, it should be noted that my art was never exhibited in galleries or on festivals in Russia because no one dared exhibit them. I only got positive responses from Russian audiences, but never got any permission to show my works publicly. Also, I was rejected when I wanted to print my books in Moscow, because my art was seen as dangerous, prohibited… people are clearly afraid."

Dennis Kardon: Dunham's new paintings are sexual, but not homosexual. They are very much about a white straight guy trying to come to terms with his attitude towards male bodies, starting with his own, as expressed by the fact that the two figures are almost the same, so I assume they are aspects of himself in turmoil, or at least wrestling with the idea of his maleness. In the last two shows, one of which I reviewed for Art in America, the female body was seen as an other, or as a muse, and always depicted alone, so I guess accessible to artist/viewer. The paintings of trees on the other hand seemed a stand in for the male body. And they still have a formal metonymy with cocks and balls.

The history of body depictions in Western painting is usually that women's bodies are objects of desire and men's bodies are objects of torture or competition, with the exception of Caravaggio or David. Manet's Jesus Mocked by the Soldiers is a great example of the different male attitudes of masculinity. In Dunham the wrestlers do not touch each other erotically, though there is a certain tenderness expressed that is just short of a caress. Penises are never erect or semi-erect.

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The abundance of assholes, feels to be about fear of penetration, and dominance. I keep waiting for one of the wrestlers to stick a club in one. When a lone male is lying down, the painting is titled Left for Dead, which is telling, as if abandonment is the issue, and the competition is not innocent. I did find it interesting that he eroticized men's nipples, making them erect and pink, and pretty much the way he paints women's nipples.

MH: Why are American artists so evasive about content? Why do they put something right in your face and then pretend that they don't see. The separation between content and intent that is endemic to really successful American art begins when it leaves the studio. The galleries attempt to legitimize the art. If the painting is worth a lot of money It must be on a continuum with everything else that rich people buy. It needs to be placed in history. Something is good because its like something else that has already proved itself.

DK: I disagree with your idea about content as a visual narrative that a painter should verbally address. Content occurs in the ambiguity that a painter establishes, and is something that viewers could address verbally, but it is not the business of a painter to spoil for viewers. So instead painters address their physical actions in the creating of the painting, or even the feelings that that might arise, which is why the formal structure is safe to talk about. I think artists today talk way too much about content or subject matter in their work which should be left to a viewer to try to come to terms with.

BR: The last thing I want to bring up is that Dunham is dealing with depictions of sex, and in an odd way with the sexuality of painting. I like what Mira Schor wrote:

"I would lay claim both to being polymorphously perverse, because after all why shouldn’t painting benefit from the input of more than one sense, and also to having the very same body part, connecting my optic nerve and my hand to my sexuality, especially if sexuality is defined as not just the province of genital intercourse but as a profound life/death drive. It is in fact precisely this intersection of visuality, sexuality, and manual impulse that makes me a painter. And I would add something left out of this particular biological theory, that is, the connection of optic nerve, sexuality, and hand to intellect."

I think there is something of late Picasso in Dunham's work. That acting out or recreating sexual encounters on canvas.

DK: The day Dunham really ups the ante will be the day when one of those guys is black, and I will be interested in how he will depict his dick. All the people in Dunham's recent paintings are as white as can be; the white of the primed canvas.

MH: So stop focusing on the cocks, the pussies and the assholes they are in Dunham's work to get the punters in the door. Once they are there they should be looking at how the paintings are made and what other artists they refer to… right?

BR: Yeah, "boys keep swinging, boys always work it out!"

Mr. Rubenstein is NYC-based painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.

Mr. Hughes was born in North Wales in 1960, son of an Anglican priest. He began making art on the computer in 1998 in NYC.

Mr. Kardon has been valiantly applying CPR to painting, which once had as its heart the means to express of specific feeling, for several decades. Mr. Kardon has recently found it a good idea to put into print some of his more pointed ideas about his practice.

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