c/o Atle Gerhardsen
These five new paintings by Carroll Dunham are both surprisingly new and reassuringly familiar. Each titled ‘Distant Hills’, they effect a veritable forestation of Atle Gerhardsen’s riverside gallery. Each portrays a single tree in a landscape, with a palette restrained to earthy tones of green, brown, black and white. The introduction of this unexpected motif, shocking in its lack of phallic protrusions or labial orifices, is tempered however, by the appearance of many of Dunham’s true-to-form stylistic tropes: the scumbled, splattered surfaces; the thick black cartoonish outline that defines forms; the unruly arabesque that seems to ascribe a dynamic willfulness to line itself, never quite able to complete the four straight sides of a rectangle without digressing into extraneous curls and loops.
Though the tree has until now never been a central feature of Dunham’s paintings, wood has. His earliest paintings on veneer panels from the 1980s took the wood’s own surface as a point of departure for a species of abstract patterning that skirted the edges of anthropomorphic realism: knots becoming nipples or orifices, the shapes of grain filled-in to become droopy limb-like forms. Abandoning wood for linen supports around 1990, the orifices and swollen forms, and even sections of schematically painted wood-grain, remained as central aspects of a constantly evolving painterly vocabulary.
Although the tree seems unexpected, it is the formal brother to those argumentative, teeth-baring, phallic-nosed figures familiar from Dunham’s paintings from the mid 90s onwards. In those works, the figure sometimes even morphed into a wood-grained angular object, if more man-made than organic. These new trees are as rectangular as the figures or the schematic oblong buildings alongside them were, while the Twombly-esque looping script that was once a stand-in for hair, is now a vegetative doodle. It is as if we are returning to the paintings from the late 90s, zooming in one of the chaotic, explosive, self-destructing ‘Planet’ paintings, to a solitary tree in an apocalyptic landscape.
For even here, in an at first harmless, even pastoral-looking exhibition, there seems to be some malevolent spirit at work. In the first painting you see, ‘Distant Hills (Healthy Tree)’, the blocky tree is an optimistically vibrant green cross-hatching of broad brush marks, growing from a similarly vibrant stretch of green grass. There is something about the dirty, splotchy background, however, and the schematically drawn trees in the background, which actually seem to resemble mushroom clouds, which demands a second look. On second thoughts, this shade of green is a touch too vibrant; it is a toxic, fabricated, artificial green, foreign and blistering on its canvas support. The other works are subtitled ‘Dead Tree’, ‘Broken Tree’, or ‘Dry Tree’. The trees are upended, overturned, or emerging from unspeakably lumpy smears of brown earth. The curlicue spirals extruding from one side of each suggest a conflict between unruly nature and their otherwise square clipped topiary. The paintings show a return to the explosive litany of marks – splashes, drips, smears and wipes – that characterized earlier paintings, and were put on hold in recent series of works which depicted sharp suited, angular, phallus nosed ‘suits’, in crisply outlined close-up. Perhaps these scenes of rural catastrophe play out the disasters set in motion by those coldly corporate urban figures.
Matthew Ritchie described Carroll Dunham’s world as “a world of ceaseless sexual activity, promiscuous metamorphosis and endless conflict” going on to say “in looking at Dunham’s work we are looking at an examination of one of the greatest and more primal themes possible, the story of origins.” In this series of recent paintings, the sexual is held at bay but conflict is brought to the fore. Perhaps this is not the story of origins so much as a prediction of the end.
Carroll Dunham „Recent Paintings“
c/o – Atle Gerhardsen
Carroll Dunham, Installationsansicht 2008 (© Courtesy c/o Atle Gerhardsen, Berlin)