Carroll Dunham and Becoming-Woman

To follow the trajectory of the work of the artist Carroll Dunham is to embark on the birth of a universe of metaphor. Its inception begins with colorful, abstract paintings on wood veneer of anthropomorphic shapes littered with genitalia in the ’80s, evolving into aggressive phallus-nosed figures engaged in sexual combat in the ’90s. In the ’00s these figures slowly transform: In a 2006 painting, Garbage, Ratio (Disconnect), it is revealed that the phallic-nosed figure carrying a gun also sports a vaginal orifice. Today, in Dunham’s fourth solo show at Barbara Gladstone in New York, the artist focuses entirely on paintings of trees and women bathing amidst idyllic, wooded scenes.

Dunham explains that while painting he is “deferring to the desires of the work,” likening himself to a medium rather than an author. “Subjects have come to me as images, usually arising out of drawing,” the 63-year-old artist told Interview. “I don’t have any story I’m illustrating, at least not consciously.” In the towering painting Large Bather (quicksand), a female figure stands with one leg lifted, revealing a pink horizontal slit between her buttocks. Phallic shapes protrude from a fallen branch in front of her, pointing suggestively in the direction of her orifice. The large-scale Next Bathers, one (picking flowers) depicts a figure immersed in water, picking a lavender flower from a branch above her head. Wild black hair billows over her shoulders while her left hand is hidden in front of her body, suggesting another act entirely. Both paintings nod to art history, with subtle provocations and humorous irreverence.

But why then did the phallic-nosed, gun-toting, hat-wearing character of the ’90s evolve into a female? Consider a 2008 interview, between the artist and his partner Laurie Simmons, published in Carroll Dunham Paintings on Wood 1982-1987, where he said: “In my fantasy life women would paint a new unimaginable kind of abstraction we’ve never seen before… and lead us to perceive a new relationship between painting and reality.” Which prompts one to assume that by allowing his main character to become a woman Dunham creates a metaphor within the painting that speaks to his fantasy outside of it.

So then, what’s next—woman becomes tree? We will have to wait and see.