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"Carroll Dunham's First Major Museum Survey"
2002-10-31 until 2003-02-02
New Museum of Contemporary Art
New York, NY, USA

The New Museum of Contemporary Art presents the first major museum survey of the paintings of the highly influential American painter Carroll Dunham. Dunham's independence from prevailing stylistic norms and his idiosyncratic combination of biomorphism, cartooning, and abstraction have expanded the vocabulary of American painting and played a pivotal role in synthesizing abstraction with representation. Co-curated by New Museum Director Lisa Phillips and New Museum Senior Curator Dan Cameron, Carroll Dunham features over 40 paintings by Carroll Dunham spanning a twenty-year period.

Beginning with his small, densely-worked abstract paintings on wood to his large, expressive canvases of cartoon-like figures, this exhibition presents the evolution of Dunham's work from the early 1980s to today. Building on the tradition of early American Modernism, Surrealism, and Abstract Expressionism, Dunham added the varied influences of Minimalism, Mayan art, and pop culture. In all of Dunham's work, the expressionistic, eye-popping color is a central quality that distinguishes his work from that of his peers.

In the early 1980s Dunham's work was influenced by the post-minimal, process-based art of Mel Bochner and Barry Le Va. In his paintings from this time, Dunham's efforts to make his artistic decisions as clear as possible resulted in a painstakingly detailed, color-based abstract style. Representational elements, while identifiable, are adrift in a swirling composition of abstract shapes. In these paintings, Dunham used panels with wood-veneered surfaces instead of canvas, allowing the natural pattern of the wood to guide and influence him. This early practice contributed to the development of Dunham's simultaneously uninhibited and controlled use of the line. In Fourth Pine (1982-1983), for instance, Dunham references the natural world by revealing the wood surface through his paint, while forms accrete and interact to suggest primal elements on the threshold of being.

By the end of the 1980s, Dunham began to make large scale paintings on canvas. His style became increasingly fluid and gestural as he developed an iconography of shapes and signs with bristling, hairy protusions suggestive of tumors, teeth, and lips. At this time, Dunham also began adding Styrofoam balls to the surface of his paintings, which added three dimensional depth and other metaphorical allusions. Mound A (1991-1992), part of the Mound series from this era, suggests a different world altogether, an unearthly cosmos excavated from the artist's fantasy and pulsing with an animated vitality.

By the mid-1990s Dunham's style once again shifted, as he introduced highly reduced caricatures of men and women engaged in sexual and violent behavior. Even buildings, planets, and boats became vehicles to express human behavior driven by primordial urges. In Demon Tower (1997), poisonous yellow comic demons urinate and wield knives as they tumble out of a Pepto-Bismol pink towering structure.

Dunham's recurring use of cartoon-like characters strips away the pretensions of the art world to reveal dark truths about the human condition. In an interview conducted by Matthew Ritchie and published in the New Museum catalogue of the exhibition, Dunham says, "I want to make art that feels true, that can function as a window into realms that aren't part of the day to day. I know that my art exists in this kind of tension between irrational, almost goofy, things and extremely tight, formal, organized things. That tension is where I live."

Although Dunham has never attained the recognition of super-star painters of the 1980's, his unique vision has been a clear influence on the work of a new generation of artists, including, among others, Fred Tomaselli and Matthew Ritchie. Dunham's work has both inspired and participated in a broad stream of recent painting that attempts to reconcile the competing claims of abstraction and representation. This exhibition, the first retrospective of Carroll Dunham's career, establishes his work as a compelling point of convergence between important traditions in 20th century painting.

About Carroll Dunham

Carroll Dunham was born in 1949 in Old Lyme, Connecticut. He majored in studio art at Trinity College, interned as an assistant to the painter Dorothea Rockburne, and moved to New York when he was 23. By the mid-1970s, several distinct components that formed the syntax of Dunham's art were slowly coming together: his admiration for Flemish painting, particularly the attenuated, tuberous figures of Dieric Bouts and the phantasmagoric visions of Hieronymus Bosch; the subculture of psychedelia with its sensationally lurid palette; and the attendant, mysterious aspects of Surrealism, which provided Dunham with an especially rich vein to explore. The young Dunham was also attracted to the vanguard minimalist paintings of Robert Ryman, Robert Mangold, and Brice Marden.

Dunham had his first critical and commercial success during the early 1980s, beginning with an exhibition at Artist Space in 1981. His work was included in the 1985 Whitney Biennial and in several group exhibitions of the time, both in the United States and abroad, that explored new, organic directions in American painting. Dunham's paintings were part of the 1996 exhibition, Deformations: Aspects of the Modern Grotesque, at the Museum of Modern Art, and are in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Walker Art Center, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. He teaches in the Visual Arts graduate program at Columbia University School of the Arts.

Carroll Dunham
Demon Tower (1997)

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