Speaking at the opening of her first exhibition of new works in New York in almost a decade and her first solo show here since a 2008 retrospective at MoMA, Marlene Dumas stood in front of an ebullient self-portrait, the only recognizable trace of her former self in the series of new paintings. "I always zoom in on the human body and the human face," she explained, referring to her previous work, "but here I wanted to tackle space." After the solemn and affecting but in recollection often indistinguishable portraits of women in tight close-up packed into her MoMA show, Against the Wall at David Zwirner (through April 24) takes full advantage of what is essentially its primary subject: geographic and architectural space.
Specifically, the installation is all about the opening up of space—with seventeen canvases varying in size and subject matter from tiny still lives to massive landscapes spread generously around four airy rooms—while the paintings themselves deal with the abrupt truncating and curtailing of space. The wall of the exhibition title refers specifically to structures in the Middle East that keep populations apart, serve as pilgrimage sites and force arbitrary divisions onto previously fluid territories. Dumas, who was raised during apartheid in South Africa, knows a thing or two about such structures and systems of confinement. "I am against the wall," she said, "I am not against the state of Israel or the state of Palestine, but I am against the wall."
This architectural motif looms large over the exhibition's most gripping paintings. In some the wall appears as an ominous and threatening gray mass that evokes an approaching tempest as with "Figure in a Landscape" (2010), in which, disturbingly, the only landscape is the massive concrete barrier that violently truncates the image so that our senses of depth and perspective are radically altered and destabilized. In other paintings, like the exhibition's first finished work "The Wall" (2009) or "Man Watching" (2009), we only see the backs of human figures that have turned to face the wall out of duty or devotion: in the former, five men who seem to have walked right out of a Picasso musketeer painting prepare for prayer at the foot of the barrier; in the latter a soldier watches others doing the same. In these works, being against the wall isn't a political statement, but a fact of everyday ritual.
The paintings that feature no human figures are the exhibition's most impressive. During the opening, Dumas admitted her difficulty in getting away from those customary focal points of vision and identification from her preceding oeuvre, and that challenge registers as a diffuse but compelling sense of loss and lack looming over each piece and echoed in the very sparseness of the works' materials, the thin and sparing layers of paint. Not that such paintings, like "Under Construction" (2009)—which originally included a solitary person at prayer who was eventually painted over—and "Mindblocks" (2009), seem incomplete, but the absence of the figures we expect to find in Dumasŝs work carries an emotional charge that fits snugly with the sorrowful subject matter. "Mindblocks" in particular, with its massive, icy squares of stone framing a view of a road that barely registers as a thin line of blue disappearing near the off-white horizon, teeters ambiguously between guarded hope and swelling fatalism. Here, the symbolic and figurative walls become roadblocks, obstacles to seeking something better or at least different.
The palpable desolation in these new paintings conveys an oddly imposing emptiness, as if despite being sparse, they are also full to bursting. This effect results from Dumas's economic, judicious use of bright colors (cool blues, sunset purples, tentative yellows and rusty browns) to pull our eyes to the edges and seams where walls, bricks, hands and feet touch. Contact carries an electric charge in this landscape of alienation, with sparks of color bursting where gray, black and white fields meet. These can be the kindling of conflict, as in "Wall Wailing" (2009), where two soldiers pat down men lined up against a wall with their hands in the air; or they are flickers of hope, as in the daubs of yellow and red that give the marvelous "Olive Tree" (2010) its iconic glow, which Dumas, in a moment of free-associative insight brought on by the R. Crumb exhibition next door, likened to the Bible's burning bush.
These poles of optimism and dread co-exist strikingly in the show's smallest canvas, "Resurrection" (2003-09), which shows a head thrown back, its mouth wide open, either in agony or in ecstasy, silhouetted by a pale yellow glow. Whether the image's force is hopeful or given to abandon, productive or destructive, feminine or masculine is entirely up to the viewer. Walking through the exhibition, in response to a visitor's observation, Dumas observed that she hadn't seen Kathryn Bigelow's film The Hurt Locker—which portrays more explosive but similarly ambiguous ideological and military conflicts in the Middle East—but noted that she, like Bigelow, had been told that her work dealt with "male subject matter, as if some subjects were only for men." By challenging herself to create new kinds of spatial relations and architectures, she has forged a set of works in which that distinction becomes irrelevant, or at least blurred to the point of being pointless. Up against a wall, Dumas has carved herself out a solemn new space.
(images courtesy Marlene Dumas, David Zwirner)