Carol Danham’s work is mysterious, but the pictorial vocabulary he uses seems simple. Dunham often uses boldly colored planes and nearly cartoon contours to depict naked figures in imaginary natural landscapes inhabited by rusticly rendered trees, birds, dogs and flowers. In his paintings and drawings where thick-chested fat women are bathing or hairy men struggle with each other, Dunham allows viewers to meet life with lively animated actions. Still, there is obvious opacity in his subject. Who are these semi-biblical, semi-fantastic novels who have button-like nipples and dark tufts of pubic hair, and their bodies are awkwardly stretched against indifferently hilarious landscapes? What is the purpose and meaning of the ambiguous ritual that Dunham draws these characters away from the viewer and reluctant to disturb or see private habits?
The strangeness of Dunham’s hero’s drop out of space may remind us that the artist’s path to figurative nudity was unconventional. Born in Connecticut and attending Trinity College, Dunham moved to New York City in the early 1970s and began working as an assistant to the painter Dorothea Rockburn. His own work was influenced by Rockburn and her environment, where art was “thought as a philosophical movement”, a cool, nice and simplified post-minimalist approach. “I had a very, very reducing vocabulary for my work.” From the late 1970s to the 1980s, Dunham’s paintings and drawings were closely associated with abstraction, with lines and colors reserves. I drew a systematic swirl. Still, over the years and as his career evolved, Dunham initially became part of the language of semi-abstract painting, with top hats, guns, mouths, penises, vulva, and more and more men. A fully fleshed image of a woman, the rich veins he has been pursuing for nearly 20 years now. “Everything about me as an artist is back in things,” he told me. Later, he added, “At some point, life begins to sneak up.”
Today, 72-year-old Dunham is one of the most successful and respected American painters of his generation. His work has been collected by many national and international art galleries, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Museum Ludwig. Most recently, his paintings were exhibited in a solo exhibition at the Eva Presenthober Gallery in Zurich. There, Dunham portrayed his familiar women and men in the act of mating together for the first time, rather than separately. (For the first time, these subjects were also painted green.) Since the early 90’s, Danham has been married to the artist Laurie Simmons, who has two children. Director, writer, actor Lena Dunham and writer and activist Cyrus Dunham. The couple share time between a Connecticut house (Dunham also maintains his painting studio) and an apartment near Union Square. I have been a fan of Dunham’s work for the past 10 years. His little ballpoint pen depicts a naked woman from behind. This is one of my precious assets. And I met a few years ago. When I wrote a catalog essay about one of his series, I became more intimate with him and his paintings. When I recently talked with an artist at my home in New York City about painting, body, oppression, and family, I went deeper.
You have recently returned from Zurich. In Zurich, I performed a show alone at the Eva Presenhuber gallery, which has been a gallery for about 10 years. Looking at the images online, the art is very similar to your past work, but your character is new to you. .. .. green?
It’s a big change. That’s a big change.
For the first time, these characters, men and women, are having sex.
It’s been in my mind for years, but it’s the first time I’ve found a way to draw a picture of a man and a woman together in the same picture. They appear to be mating, so they may do it together. It took years to imagine how we could deal with such subjects without being unreasonably sensational. That’s the way I paint. It takes a long time for things to happen.
But even figurative images without mating can be considered potentially sensational in the sense that they have very graphic openings, they have appendages. .. ..
I was trying to make something that felt honest in terms of being fascinated by the human body. Take one and look at them. And I completely reject pornography and its association with such things. Because it’s not my interest. As I’ve told people for years, for me the image of including women has more to do with the idea that everyone has a mother than the idea of sexuality itself. And the image of a man with a pair of humans messing with each other is as relevant as the experience of riding a horse with my brother. At least at the conscious level, it has nothing to do with sex.
Is it because paintings have to try to inspire in order to be related to sex or pornography, and these images are not interested in it?
If you look at the pictures in my picture and find a child masturbating somewhere, I would love to meet them. But I don’t think it’s very likely. [Laughs.] It’s not a zone. As far as I can see, there is nothing about what the painting looks like, or the intent behind it. And I’m not saying it’s dishonest. Our culture has pushed the idea of the human body into a rather eerie territory, but art has existed for a very long time and the human body has been the subject from the beginning.
But what’s interesting about your work is that it can be creepy. It’s not a sexual way, but when you look at it, you’re faced with something you don’t always think about. There is coordinated oppression when we sit here and interact with each other’s bodies, much like we do in the subway or in the family. The idea of people’s protruding penis and its openings is not in their heads.
I fully agree. I think it’s true. But I think that’s the way I see art. Art allows what we do not use in our daily social spaces to understand each other and classify each other. Art is a kind of free zone. Here on the bus side of New York, I sometimes find it far more provocative than my job. And maybe that means I don’t know the effect of what I’m making.