Attention-grabbing gestures tend to garner the most buzz during the Venice Biennale, which is perhaps only natural when the world’s biggest art exhibition is your competition. Look no further than Anselm Kiefer’s room-filling paintings currently at the Palazzo Ducale or the Anish Kapoor survey coming to the Gallerie dell’Accademia show for proof. But there are benefits to thinking small, too, as the Palazzo Grassi’s elegant Marlene Dumas survey, “open-end,” curated by Caroline Bourgeois and the artist herself, goes to show.
In this sparsely hung exhibition of more than 100 works, a painting the size of a notebook is often allowed to command an entire gallery all on its own. This show’s minimalism is underscored by Dumas’s painterly style, which lends itself to figurations in muted tones, many of which dribble gently down her canvases, causing them to descend into abstraction. More often than not, the effect of installing tiny works in a space so grand as the Palazzo Grassi is striking.
When Dumas began these figurations during the ’80s, they contained a certain edge because abstraction was still the dominant mode. While these paintings may not elicit the same jolt that they once used to, now that there’s so much figurative painting out there that looks a lot like them, they still intrigue because they have a tendency to deliver subtle shocks that only unfold across sustained viewing.
Take The White Disease (1985), one of the earliest works in the Palazzo Grassi show. A simple portrait of a white woman whose features appear to melt away into her pallidly colored flesh, it’s based on a photograph of one of Dumas’s friends. Painted five years before Apartheid ended in Dumas’s home country of South Africa, the work suggests that anyone white—Dumas and her friends included—is implicated in a global system of oppression.
Misogyny is a more frequent subject for Dumas, who seems to have committed herself to reversing the leery views of ogling men. In a number of works here, she takes up what appears to be appropriated pornographic imagery—erect men, masturbating women—and presents it in such a way that it provides none of the titillation it once had. Rendered in runny gray and blue washes, these paintings feel deadening rather than arousing.
These paintings are not always successful. Dumas’s repetitive close-ups of genitalia start to lose their subversive quality once you’ve seen more than a handful of them, and it’s hardly as though pornography hasn’t been dealt with before by other feminist artists of her ilk. But where Dumas stands out in that crowded lineage is in the way she knowingly draws on the sexually charged imagery of artists like François Boucher and Pablo Picasso, and then disrupts it.
Dumas’s gaze is not just directed at visuals of the present but ones of the past, too. In some of the show’s finest works, she takes up women who men saw as their muses and memorializes them in surprising—and often slyly funny—ways.
Two paintings here allude to Marilyn Monroe, the star of Andy Warhol’s most famous works. Blue Marilyn (2006) shows a nude woman sipping a Coke; its source is a porn film whose actress was mistakenly believed to be Monroe for a while. Dead Marilyn (2008) is a view of Monroe on the autopsy table, her eyes closed in a permanent sleep. Neither are glamorous images of a person associated with the highest form of beauty, but the latter may just be the most tender artwork about Monroe ever produced.
Picasso is also a frequent reference point for Dumas, though she is less interested in him and his art than what it all meant. Dora Maar (The Woman Who saw Picasso cry), from 2008, is a tribute to the Surrealist photographer who many have merely viewed as a muse. Picasso often depicted Maar in tears that streak across her cheeks. Dumas’s version, based on a Man Ray photograph, is steely and confrontational, and renders Maar unusually present.
I blithely thought I spotted another Picasso reference in Death by Association (2002), an image of a deceased person that recalls the composition of Picasso’s The Death of Casagemas (1901). In fact, it is part of a series of works that Dumas based on pictures she saw of killed young Palestinians. (In the original source image, relatives were shown reading the Koran to the dead boy, but the living are absent here.) The show’s booklet praises Dumas for turning her “maternal gaze” on the subject, language that unfortunately echoes how Dana Schutz described her reasoning for painting Open Casket (2017), an image of Emmett Till that many have suggested allowed the artist to profit off racist violence.
Death by Association isn’t really Dumas’s image to paint, and the same could be said of other works in this show, where there isn’t much wall text to help viewers navigate the thorny topics she broaches. The exhibition lives up to its title in that the works—many beautiful ones included, to be sure—in it exist in a state that isn’t entirely resolved.