Art review: Carroll Dunham at Blum & Poe

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Carroll Dunham makes paintings that not even a mother could love. Vulgar beyond belief, his super-crude depictions of a naked woman crawling through a cartoon landscape border on vicious.
It’s easy to see why many people find them offensive, demeaning and disgusting, as well as mean-spirited, malicious and horrific. They are all that and more. Much, much more.

Dunham’s new oils on canvas are the best works the 61-year-old New Yorker has made. With a forcefulness that often turns brutal and sometimes gets ugly, they show that art and love are different subjects; that images and emotions are complex constellations of all sorts of stuff; and that power and pleasure intersect in ways that are not always attractive or palatable but even more dangerous when swept under the rug.


The three-gallery show begins slowly. In the main space at Blum & Poe hang five hefty paintings. Each depicts a single tree. Four stand upright. Three are in the center of the composition, with low horizon line, as if drawn by a child. Their palette is crayon, with out-of-the-box green, brown, blue and purple predominant. Their style is coloring book, with black outlines defining shapes.

Despite the benign subject matter, not a lick of innocence is to be found in Dunham’s landscapes. One tree, whose foliage resembles the blade of a battle-axe, lies on its side, apparently chopped down. A noose hangs from the branch of another. A ghostly cabin appears in its background.
Hand-written notations list the months and years Dunham worked on the paintings, like evidence that may be exculpatory or damning. In the last one, which leads to the next galleries, a woman enters the picture from the lower right corner, her head, breast and arm visible as she crawls toward the tree — or lies facedown on the ground.

The way Dunham has applied paint adds to the queasy unease. Thinned with turpentine, his oils are washy stains that seem gaseous and toxic. Corrosive and damaged, his wiped-over surfaces sometimes blister, as if the paint has eaten away the image.

Beauty and brutality collide. Viewers are free to sort out thoughts about diminished possibilities in the aftermath of tragedies. And to dread a worse future.

The three somewhat smaller paintings in each of the next two galleries deliver a visual wallop that’s hard to get over. They make the first gallery seem like an Edenic retreat from reality.

Their painterly DNA shares more with public toilet graffiti than Picasso’s “Demoiselles D’Avignon.” Fleshy pinks come to the forefront as stylized genitals and roughly sketched breasts stare you in the face. Think of a John Wesley painting gone horribly wrong. Or a Peter Saul picture stripped of its comedic relief. Or a Robert Zakanitch canvas without gentleness.

Dunham’s images reek of desperation and humiliation, alongside defiance and a stubborn, almost animal insistence on never giving up, no matter how bad it gets. The truth isn’t pretty but that’s no reason to lie about it.

Blum & Poe, 2727 S. La Cienega Blvd., (310) 836-2062, through May 15. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Images: Time Storm Four, 2009-2010 (top) and Hers/Grass/Two, 2009. Photo credit: David Regen.