As Dunham has described, these paintings have “more to do with my mother and the kind of universality of that: we all have one.” Here, the mother (her genitals) is synonymous with an origin story, and certainly Dunham’s paintings might be interpreted by a mythos of beginnings, blossoming, and birth—think Courbet’s L’Origine Du Monde (1866), anything by the great Georgia O’Keeffe, or medieval representations of the biblical first woman Eve. The original nudity of Adam and Eve—the history of the fig leaf in art not withstanding—offers an interesting departure point for considering Dunham’s nudes within the Judeo-Christian tradition of Western art history. Historically, the representation of Adam and Eve marked the platonic idealism of absolute purity, an essential state of innocence before the arrival of original sin. Here, the nude body became a text through which forms of social control were imparted. From this moralistic position, the significance of a nude body versus a clothed body began to express various sorts of social transgressions. As philosopher Mario Perniola has written in his essay “Between Clothing and Nudity”: “Christianity made the consummate representation of eroticism possible in the figurative arts because it introduced a dynamic that was insufficiently developed in biblical and classical antiquity. The force of this dynamic could be directed toward taking clothes off or putting them on…From the first action—undressing—came the erotics of the Reformation and Mannerism; from the second—dressing—the erotics of the Counter-Reformation and the Baroque.”
Perniola continues to describe the kind of striptease that art has enacted for centuries in the service of both political agenda and human desire. He conjures Georges Battaille’s Eroticism: Death and Sensuality when he quotes, “Nakedness offers a contrast to self-possession, to discontinuous existence, in other words, it is a state of communication… obscenity is our name for the uneasiness which upset the physical state associated with self-possession, with the possession of a recognized and stable individuality.” Looking closely at Dunham’s nude bathers, we are not confronted by sex itself, yet as a viewer we may experience uneasiness, shame, or upset, even within the pornographic imagination of our present day and age. Is it that these subjects have been granted a kind of self-possession in their nudity? Or, as Roland Barthes would describe it, do they “signify, through the shedding of an incongruous and artificial clothing, nakedness as a natural vesture of woman, which amounts in the end to regaining a perfectly chaste state of the flesh?” (Mythologies, 1984).
For all the theory on sexuality and art that gets bandied about, there remains a very human instinct that viewing a naked body arouses: the consciousness of our own bodies. Here, nudity in art can function like a mirror, inverting the subject/object relationship of spectatorship. We are made to confront our own potential nudity, our own potential sexuality, our own gender and genitals, and its difference or similarity to that which is depicted. Perhaps that’s what makes Carroll Dunham’s distinctive stylistic depiction of genitals all the more compelling: he’s painting faces where none anatomically exist. These genital faces—eyes crafted from ass cheeks or breasts, noses from assholes or belly buttons, mouths from hairy vaginas—are looking at you! In Flowers (Monday) (2012-14) is both a mature female body seated among the foliage, and a horrific mask-like face situated somewhere between a Nancy and Sluggo comic strip and the maw of hell. Bathers Sixteen (small Spectrum B) (2011) is a similar composition, yet here, ass cheeks submerged in water act as droopy jowls flanking a pursed-lip mouth formed by a perky vulva. The faces are abject, comical, debase, celebratory, and entirely characteristic of Dunham’s constantly progressing aesthetic and technical acumen.