The Work of Marlene Dumas

South African artist Marlene Dumas creates probing drawings and paintings about issues of race, gender, wealth and sexuality in her provocative paintings.  Stark, expressive and brutal in their depictions, Dumas’s paintings have a child-like, primal quality belying their complex and startling content.  There is something deeply instinctive and blatant about the manner of her work making it some of the most successfully thought provoking today and setting it apart from other ‘shock’ tactic attempts at visual art.  Eloquently blending personal experiences with socio-political issues, Dumas explores a complex range of human emotions and relationships often looking at exploitation and forcefully tackling taboo subject matter.  Her paintings examine a strange limbo where ethics and expectations collide between that which is public and that which is private and the effect this has on issues of identity.  Her brushstrokes and mark-making are bold and confident and despite the simplicity of her style, the depth of understanding in her subject is evident and moving.  Having moved to the Netherlands to study painting, Dumas also studied psychology- a heavy and obvious influence in all of her work.   She continues to live and work in Amsterdam and her work is widely and critically acclaimed, exhibited in museums and galleries all over the world.   Using drawings, prints and installations as well as painting, Dumas focuses on the anatomy of the human body, manipulating it as a tool to critique societal views and prejudices around various issues.  By referring to classical and widely recognised European art conventions and poses, Dumas uses a familiar language to communicate new ideas.  Working from her own photographs as well as an extensive archive of images from magazines, newspapers and countless media references she re-imagines and manipulates the original image and translates it from a literal record of a particular event into an anonymous symbolic icon of her chosen theme.  There are some exceptions to this sense of anonymity as in her portrait of Bin Laden which revealed the instantly recognisable and provocative face in an unsettlingly soft and intimate light.  The image was tightly cropped so that media context and publicity is separated from this depiction of identity.  She strips her subjects of their original context, simplifies their identifiable features and mutes the colours allowing us to see each figure in the moment with out the preamble of historical or social context.  This allows us to view each scene in a more direct unprejudiced way and often leaves a more unsettling, even shocking impression.  Her work provokes a reaction based on gut instinct and doesn’t direct our opinions as in narrative paintings.  Dumas is one of the most influential contemporary artists working today and asks imperative questions about the nature of our preconceptions and opinions based on media coverage.  She forces us to address the reason behind our most fervent beliefs and criticises the conventions of our time rather than faithfully recording its events.

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