South African–born, Amsterdam-based artist Marlene Dumas is famous for her psychologically and politically freighted portraits, but as she likes to put it, “I don’t paint people; I paint images.” The subjects of her loosely rendered paintings and ink drawings are generally taken from pictures culled from newspapers and magazines and invariably stand in for larger ideas. What Dumas explores in her work, then, is not really portraiture at all, but rather image-making itself.
The question of how to make representational paintings in an age dominated by photographic images is at the center of “The Image as Burden,” a survey of Dumas’s work from the late 1970s to the present. With almost 200 drawings and paintings, the exhibition is organized into themes such as masculinity, femininity, eroticism, race, terrorism, and mourning.
None of the works on view could be called easy. All are unnervingly suggestive, never definite. In The Kiss (2003), for example, we see a woman apparently kissing the floor; in actuality, she’s dead—the painting is taken from the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Dead Girl (2002), is, on the other hand, a portrait of a real person: a slain hijacker with blood smeared across her face.
Even images of small children are unsettling in Dumas’s exploration of femininity. The Painter (1994), one of the artist’s most iconic works, depicts a little girl of about two or three years of age standing naked with her hands dripping red and violet paint. Rather than looking like a child at play, she resembles a murderess caught in the act.
The pictures remind us how often we look at images and fail to digest them. And that is Dumas’s astonishing achievement: one cannot look at her paintings without seeing.
A version of this story originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 124.