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Marlene Dumas: Measuring Your Own Grave

The Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art is offering a retrospective of the work of Marlene Dumas.

Marlene Dumas: Measuring Your Own Grave
Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art
Through Sept. 22

Marlene Dumas is an icon of feminist art, said Christopher Knight in the Los Angeles Times. Her paintings don’t shy from exploring issues of gender, power, and violence, “in pictures derived from pornography” or, in one case, from images of Marilyn Monroe’s autopsy. Yet this retrospective at Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art suggests that what truly sets apart her work is its philosophical depth. Death is a major theme in all Dumas’ paintings. The somnolent young girl in Reinhardt’s Daughter, for instance, looks so “black and bruised” that she seems to be a corpse, and the mortality-soaked mood of such canvases calls to mind masters such as Goya and Manet. “Talk about ambition!” Her painting techniques, as well, engage with major (male) painters in the European tradition. Measuring Your Own Grave (2003) “looks to nothing less than Leonardo da Vinci.” Her contorted figure, arms extended out to the edge of the frame, is a moody twist on his elegant and rationally proportioned Vitruvian Man.

The painting achieves its effect through a clever optical trick, said Christopher Miles in the LA Weekly. At first glance, the central figure seems to be sitting on a background split horizontally between black and white. But the image also can be seen another way, “with the bottom half of the canvas becoming a ground plane upon which the figure stands, bent over at the waist.” This simple painting delivers a punch to the gut more effectively than Dumas’ more overtly shocking images. As in all her best works, the painter’s lively brush relieves the morbidness of her subjects with “a kind of sideways exuberance, a tarnished joie de vivre.” These contradictory tendencies make her retrospective an unforgettable cocktail of “pleasure and disturbance.”

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