Forsaken, Marlene Dumas, review by Max Liu
Marlene Dumas tells us why she paints who she paints in the pamphlet that accompanies her show at Frith Street Gallery: ‘It is about tragic lives and falls from grace. It is about portraits betraying states of mind.’ Actually, that tells us little and the second point applies equally to work by, say, Alice Neel and Van Gogh, but at least we know that these (in)famous faces have been selected for an idea of the tragic.
Before we get to modern icons, crucifixions must be negotiated. Forsaken, which shares its title with the exhibition, shows a ghost-white Christ staring heavenward to ask, ‘Why hast thou forsaken me’’ In Ecce Homo, he conceals his gaze behind a mop of hair but pain concentrates in his twisting calves and feet that cross beneath the head of a nail. The Crucifix’s Y-shaped structure suggests re-birth but in Tree of Life the same yearning draws the condemned’s flesh tight across his bones.
One painting makes you re-evaluate another. In Amy Blue, twilight falls on Amy Winehouse while, on the opposite wall, Amy Pink’s eyes are closed, her make-up curving like the wings of a bad angel to meet her eyebrows, creating a kind of mono-shadow. A deeper darkness surges to her right, a black shaft that could be her hair or her future. Revisiting Amy Blue, there’s increased sentience in her eyes, but she dissolves the closer you get and you suspect she knew she was going to die.
Osama bin Laden is so effectively framed by the staircase that he might have been hung by the US Navy Seals. Descending into the basement, you meet the face that launched the planes that killed thousands. Not that he reciprocates, his eyes are peevish, diffident, lips sensual, sullen; bin Laden was once a young man with legitimate post-colonial grievances who became a bone-headed psychopath. This image, which captures him near the end of that trajectory, as well as Gerard Richter’s sublime World Trade Centre at Tate Modern, and a piece called 96 Shades of Blue at Frieze, suggest meaningful work about 9/11 is really starting to emerge.
Whereas Phil Spector - To Know Him Is To Love Him shudders and a bulbous red tie draws the eye down from his wig, in Phil Spector - Without Wig, baldness is the vista that fills a third of the canvas. This murderer with nothing to look forward to turns seventy in 2011, the year in which these nineteen works were completed. Like Amy and Osama, he’s haunted by the blue. Like assumptions about depictions of the famous, the painting you think you’re looking at becomes a different one. Change occurs in the eyes and in the blood.