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by Hunter Drohojowska-Philp
In the first gallery of "Marlene Dumas: Measuring Your Own Grave" at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, hangs an oil painting of a washy gray skull set against a densely black background. The picture of the skull is in profile and takes up most of the canvas, which measures a little less than 4 x 5 ft. In the centuries-old tradition of vanitas, such still-lifes are meant to remind viewers that no amount of silver plate and glassware can stave off the inevitable. In the 17th and 18th centuries, vanitas pictures were among the commonest paintings produced by Netherlandish artists, and Dumas has lived in Amsterdam since 1976. This particular depicted skull, however, belonged to a woman. It is a memento mori for a way of seeing the world.

Half of the world is made up of women but the world does not seem as though it has been envisioned by them. Women still live in a world constructed and conceived by men. They do their best to fit in. Dumas, who was raised in South Africa, must be especially aware of that undercurrent of separateness. Still, she has fit herself into the world as a painter and asks for no special consideration. Instead, she takes on the history of art and makes her place in it with ambition and talent (Dumas paintings like The Teacher (Sub a) (1987) or Adult Entertainment (2000) have, of course, sold for hefty sums at auction). These paintings were made from the mind of a woman, and they are all the better for it.

The exhibition of 70 paintings and 35 drawings was organized by Connie Butler, who was a curator at MoCA before becoming chief curator of drawings at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where the show opens on Dec. 14, 2008. MoCA assistant curator Rebecca Morse co-organized the exhibition in Los Angeles, where it remains on view through Sept. 22, 2008.

After the initial gallery, which features quite a few faces painted from media portrayals of Middle Eastern men, Dumas installed the show roughly along the lines of a life cycle: pregnancy and children, groups of people, sex and diversions, self-questioning and death. Paintings are hung high and low, small next to big. She did not display the works in chronological order and formal development is not her quest. The bruised tonalities and wobbly outlines have remained more or less consistent over the past two decades. Dumas’ concerns are more interior, though not neurotic. They are reminiscent of short stories by Alice Munroe in their sadness leavened by flashes of humor. Black humor, of course.

Babies are rendered in nocturnal shades. Their bodies take up the space of the paper just as physical babies take up more space than the largest of adults. A pregnant mother looks consumed by angst. Motherhood is hardly the sweet idyll portrayed by Mary Cassatt.

Sexuality in this show is prominent. Woman display themselves as prostitutes or in pornographic poses, bottoms and vulvas proffered to the viewer, sometimes outfitted in boots or lingerie. A small and smudged picture of a pudenda, Immaculate (2003), calls to mind Gustave Courbet’s Origin of the World. Dumas gives equal time to men who pose with parted buttocks and flexed muscles. A young man with a sizable and purplish member is titled, hilariously, D-Rection (1999).

She takes Polaroids of her subjects or borrows from pictures in magazines and newspapers, but the paintings are transformed and transcend their origins. Though representational, they are not realist.

The photographs become part of the joke in a painting of Sleeping Beauty with the Broken Arm (2008). The model lies on a bier, gazed upon by Ensoresque dwarves, her arm dangling at her side while her hand clutches a Polaroid instant camera. Half a dozen snapshots lie on the floor. Was this fairy tale creature photographing herself? Vanity again!  

An entire wall features watercolors of Jesus Serene, though each face is entirely different. One appears to be copied from Memling and another looks like Osama Bin Laden. Throughout the show, paintings are based on photographs of terrorists or prisoners at Abu Ghraib, but politics never overwhelms the art, which raises troubling questions about personal faith and life’s meaning.

In the last gallery, the mood grows cold. Three versions of an image of a child hung by a noose, all labeled as "imaginary." A woman’s body lies nude on a table, probably dead. The title? Waiting (For Meaning) (1988). Its companion portrays a woman floating face down in water and titled Losing (Her Meaning).

Dumas’ pictures ask more than they answer, as if wondering where to find this elusive meaning. The same gallery features the dark painting of the show’s title, Measuring Your Own Grave (2003). A figure is doing just that, her hands stretched out to note the number of feet and inches required, a picture both painful and funny. This is the way playwright Samuel Beckett would paint -- if he were a woman. The catalogue includes a number of Dumas’ own poems, and it is appropriate to include the one with the same title as her exhibition. In part, it reads:

But let’s get back to my exhibition here.
I’ve been told that people want to know,
why such a somber title for a show?
Is it about artists and their mid-life careers,
or is it about women’s after-50 fears?
No, let me make this clear:
for what an artist does when making art
and how a figure in painting makes its mark.
For the type of portraitist like me
this is as wide as I can see.

In her studio, Dumas has posted Mae West’s famous edict: "Good Girls Go to Heaven, Bad Girls Go Everywhere."

"Marlene Dumas: Measuring Your Own Grave," June 22-Sept. 22, 2008, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 250 South Grand Avenue, Los Angeles, Ca. 90012

HUNTER DROHOJOWSKA-PHILP writes about contemporary art in Los Angeles.