With an acute reverence for the tradition of art history and shifting from abstraction towards figuration, for three decades New York-based painter Carroll Dunham has serially tackled the depiction of the human body and the trope of nudity. Eschewing proper eroticism, his faceless genitals confront us with sexuality and gender with a subjective,universal, quasi-feminist approach—while their subtle sexism exposes a complicated reality, for both art and the human psyche.
I’ve been a great fan of your work from the beginning. It’s wonderful to have the opportunity to interview you.
Thanks, Judith. I appreciate that you wanted to do it.
I’m interested to hear about your childhood. You were born in New Haven, CT. Could you describe growing up there? Can you think of certain childhood influences that led you to create your art?
My family lived in rural Connecticut. My father had a large chicken farm for much of my childhood. Our house had a lot of unpainted pine walls, which I now see could have opened my imagination to wood as a pictorial field. Also, I climbed trees a lot.
How has family affected your life and work?
The way water “affects” fish. It provides a world.
I find a lot of your work to be quite humorous, which I love! I incorporate a lot of humor in my work as well. Could you tell me about the role of humor in your work?
I don’t think about my work in terms of humor when I’m making it, but am sometimes capable of seeing that aspect later. I know anecdotally that my work can elicit that reaction, which I used to be defensive about but now mostly seems nice. I try to let the work take me along with its implications and to be honest about the sorts of things my imagination gravitates to, and I think the “personal” (in the general sense) nature of some of the images has overlapped somewhat with the subject areas that humor frequently explores.
Many of your figures are faceless—for example, Large Bather (Quicksand) (2012), which I recently saw at Barbara Gladstone and the “New” Whitney Museum’s inaugural exhibition. Why are the faces obscured and facing away?
I haven’t wanted the images to depict specific personalities, and in our culture, the face basically is the personality. Without faces, they seem more like archetypes.
Bathers have obviously had a big presence throughout art history (Renoir, Cezanne, Picasso, Gauguin, Seurat, Eakins, etc.). Voyeurism comes to mind when I think of bathers: seeing a private moment, catching sight of someone who is unaware. I use the theme of voyeurism in my own work, but I often feel more like an exhibitionist. My “CUNTFACE” paintings, for example, are very charged and demanding. When it comes to your art, do you consider yourself to be a voyeur, an exhibitionist, neither or both?
Well, certainly not an exhibitionist, although that may be a ridiculous thing to say for anyone involved in making things to be looked at… It’s a funny question to me because it’s all so internal. I don’t imagine myself ever in the places that are depicted in my paintings, or that I am “gazing” at the women I draw. There is some disembodied point of view that is implied in the construction of any painting, but it’s hard to talk about.
In my work, there’s a strong connection between drawings and paintings. This seems to be true for your art as well. Could you describe that relationship?
Everything I make originates in drawing. I can’t know how to paint anything if I can’t draw it first.
When I look at your new work, I feel like I’m taking the view as the aggressor and the painting becomes the fantasy. The landscape is idyllic and the figure is almost asking to be penetrated. In my art, I use the painting as the aggressor. It’s fascinating to think about art evoking an emotional reaction. Does your art offer you a refuge?
Yes and no. In a worldly sense, maybe a refuge from the world when one is deeply engaged, but then there are also the various negotiations, inner and outer, necessary to achieve that condition. In a more metaphorical way, thinking about my art and bringing it into existence represents a kind of continuous parallel reality for me, and as such, perhaps a refuge as well.
You refer to your current paintings as “the Garden of Eden.” Could you expand on that concept?
It’s an almost generic name for a common human fantasy, a pre- (or post-) civilization paradise.
What kind of films do you like to see? What type of music do you like to listen to? Do you listen to music while you work?
I like silence when I work, or rather ambient noise. My painting studio is in the country, so it tends to be quiet. When I work with music playing I feel manipulated.
Like many others, my viewing habits of late have tended away from going to the movies and more toward binge watching so-called “quality cable.” I actually believe that some of this material is very important and “good” (Breaking Bad will be taught to college students of the future), but that is certainly not the primary standard.
Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.
Where does the stove top hat come from? Is it a reference to something?
Like most subjects in my work, it came to me when I was drawing, as a recombination or distortion of elements that were already there. Usually I have “noticed” these things rather than “thought of” them; then it proves useful and I latch onto it more consciously. Once I started thinking about that hat, it seemed iconic of a certain kind of earlier, upright American maleness, and the geometry of it was fascinating.
When people see my work, many seem to feel at liberty to say anything to me in person. Because I use crude imagery and text, they think that I’m the go-to person for all things sex-talk. Do people see you as an authority on sex as well? Does it invite sexual conversation and sharing of experiences?
Oh God, no. Maybe my stern demeanor discourages it!
Do you consider your work to be provocative? What do you find provocative?
I think provocation in a deep sense is more a questioning of assumptions than a challenge to standards. I would like to think my work operates that way. Some things are annoying and others are disquieting; the latter are interesting to think about and the former aren’t.
What motivates you to make art today? And what motivated you in the past?
Ha. Would you be able to answer that question? As the saying goes, idle hands are the devil’s workshop!
Carroll Dunham (American, b. 1949) is an artist who lives and works in New York. He is represented by Gladstone Gallery, New York/Brussels; Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich; Blum & Poe, New York/Los Angeles/Tokyo; and Gerhardsen Gerner, Berlin/Oslo. He has had solo exhibitions at various international venues such as Denver Art Museum (2014); Museum Ludwig, Cologne (2009); and New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York (2002). A major solo exhibition of Carroll Dunham will open at Gladstone Gallery, New York, on 31 October.
Judith Bernstein (American, b. 1942) is an artist who lives and works in New York. She is represented by Karma International, Zurich, and The Box, Los Angeles. She has a solo exhibition at Kunsthall Stavanger coming up in February 2016.
Photo credit: Roe Ethridge