There is something enigmatic in the work of Carroll Dunham, even if the pictorial vocabulary he employs seems simple. Using bold planes of color and almost cartoonish outlines, Dunham often depicts naked human figures in imaginary natural landscapes, populated by naively rendered trees and birds, dogs and flowers. In his paintings and drawings of women with heavy breasts and thick thighs bathing, or hirsute men fighting, Dunham allows the viewer to encounter life in lively, spirited action. And yet there is a palpable opacity about his subjects: who are these half-biblical, half-sci-fi figures, with their pimple-like nipples and tufts of dark pubic hair, their bodies splaying out jarringly on an indifferently cheerful landscape? What is the purpose and meaning of the obscure rituals that Dunham depicts these figures engaging in, eyes averted from the viewer, as if reluctant to have their private customs disturbed or even watched?
The outer space strangeness of Dunham’s protagonists might remind us that the artist’s path to the figurative nude was unconventional. Born in Connecticut, where he attended Trinity College, Dunham moved to New York in the early 1970s and began working as an assistant to painter Dorothea Rockburne. His own work was influenced by the cool-to-the-touch, pared-down, post-minimalist approach of Rockburne and his milieu, where art was “viewed as a philosophical exercise,” Dunham told me. “I had a very, very reductive vocabulary in my work.” From the late seventies to the eighties, Dunham’s paintings and drawings approached abstraction, depicting systemic swirls of line and color. And yet, over the years and as his career evolved, Dunham found himself increasingly drawn to the representation of the human figure, first within the framework of a semi-abstract pictorial language, then ‘where certain repetitive symbols nevertheless emerged – top hats, guns, mouths, penises, vulvas, then, increasingly, in the fully fleshed out images of men and women, a rich vein that he has now been pursuing ever since almost two decades. “My whole thing as an artist is to withdraw into things,” he told me. Later he added, “At some point, life starts to seep in.”
Today, at seventy-two, Dunham is one of the most successful and respected American painters of his generation. His work has been collected by many art institutions here and abroad, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, Museum of Modern Art and Museum Ludwig. More recently his paintings were featured in a solo exhibition at the Eva Presenhuber Gallery, Zurich, where Dunham depicted his familiar women and men not separately but together, for the first time, in acts of copulation. (Also for the first time, these subjects were painted green.) Since the early 1990s and 1980s, Dunham has been married to artist Laurie Simmons, with whom he has two children: director, screenwriter and actress Lena Dunham , and writer and activist Cyrus Dunham. The couple split their time between a house in Connecticut, where Dunham also maintains his paint studio, and an apartment near Union Square. I have been a fan of Dunham’s work for about ten years – one of his little ball-point pen drawings, in which a nude woman is shown from behind, is one of my most treasured possessions – and, there is a few years ago I met him and became more intimately acquainted with his paintings when I wrote a catalog essay on one of his series. Recently, I dived even deeper when I sat down with the artist in her New York home for a conversation about painting, the body, repression, and family.
You have just returned from Zurich, where you presented a personal exhibition at the Eva Presenhuber gallery, which has been your gallery for ten years. I looked at the images online and saw that while the art is very much tied to your past work, for the first time your characters are . . . green?
It’s a big change. It’s quite a change.
Also for the first time, these characters, men and women, are making love.
It’s been in my head for years, but this is the first time I’ve understood how to make paintings work that have men and women together in the same paintings. They seem to be mating, so they have something to do with each other. It took me years to figure out a way to work with a subject like this without it being gratuitous sensationalism. That’s how it goes with painting, for me. It just takes a long time for things to happen.
But even with your figurative images where there is no copulation, one could consider them, potentially, as sensationalist, in the sense that they have very graphic orifices, they have appendages. . .
I was just trying to do honest things in terms of a fascination with human bodies. Have one and watch them. And I completely reject any association with porn or anything like that, because it’s just not my interest. As I’ve told people for years, the images that involve women for me have more to do with the idea that everyone has a mother than any idea about sexuality per se. And the images of men that involve pairs of humans having fun, it has as much to do with my experience of riding horses with my brother. At least on a conscious level, it has nothing to do with sex.
Is it because, for the painting to have something to do with sex or pornography, it would have to try to titillate, and these images aren’t interested in that?
If you can find me a kid somewhere who jerks off looking at pictures of my paintings, I’d love to meet them. But I find that highly unlikely. [Laughs.] It’s just not the zone. There’s nothing about it in what the paintings look like or the intent behind them, as far as I can see. And I’m not saying that to be dishonest. Our culture has relegated thinking about the human body to pretty scary realms, but art has been around for a very long time and the human body has been a subject since the beginning.
But what’s interesting about your work is that it can also be scary, not in a sexual way, exactly, but in the way that watching it confronts us with something that we don’t necessarily think about. When we sit here, engaged with each other’s bodies, the way we do on the subway, or in a family, there is a concerted repression. Thoughts about people’s protruding penises or their orifices are not things that come to mind.
I completely agree. I think it’s right. But that’s how I see art, I guess. Art allows things that we don’t use in our daily social space to understand each other, to categorize themselves. Art is a kind of free zone. I see things that I find much more provocative on the sides of buses here in New York than in my own work. And maybe that means I’m blind to the effect of what I’m doing.