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Many ways to make a world: Dunham’s Untitled (1).

Twisted Genesis

By Meisha Rosenberg

Carroll Dunham Prints: A Survey

University Art Museum, University at Albany, through April 3

Carroll Dunham’s paintings give us procreative dramas, chaotic planets rife with bulbous protrusions and penile forms, and portraits of acid- colored cartoon characters covered with what might be pustules. If you know his work at all, you probably think of him as spontaneous and subversive, and you may not associate him at all with the multi-part rigors of printmaking. Yet Dunham, as this exhibition delightfully shows, has not only mastered printmaking in many forms—lithography, intaglio, monoprint, drypoint, screenprinting, digital—he has shown it to be a laboratory of creative possibilities.

The survey, organized by the Addison Gallery (the Phillips Academy Gallery, where Dunham donated the prints) and curated by Allison N. Kemmerer, presents more than 100 spectacular prints, many in juicy colors, chronologically hung on two floors of the University at Albany’s spacious gallery. Sometimes, in fact, the size of the space deterred what might have been smoother transitions allowing visitors to see the evolution of Dunham’s riotous, unsettling artistic language. His 1980s prints are expressive and painterly, with centrifugal marks in lithographs like Accelerator and Color Message A. By the millennium, cartoon characters take over. More recently, the body parts of a recurring character (more on him later) are abstracted in claustrophobic and sometimes violent perspectives.

The survey (and the just-printed catalogue raisonné) takes us from the intimate, small-scaled portfolio pieces in Seven Places, which mimic the look and feel of a child’s crayon drawings, to a large-scale, bold, color intaglio series (Untitled, Wave, Point of Origin and Another Dimension) and beyond. In Untitled (1988-1989, from this series), a dinosaur-bone tail and the artist’s handwriting decorate the central hammer-like outcropping that is the series’ theme. It was nice to see these accidental-looking, graffiti-like marks reveal the underbelly of printing here (and in other works).

It was helpful to have a comprehensive glossary of printing terms available in the gallery, although Dunham uses so many techniques that what comes across most of all is not any one approach, but his restlessness. Dunham is as mercurial in individual works as he seems to be in his career: He compulsively explores negative and positive spaces, the push and pull of lines and curves, the extremes of color.

The deconstructive work of printmaking—creating marks in layers in reverse on plates and using different inks, tools and processes in conjunction—has been an effective way for Dunham to collaboratively yoke all his libidinal energy to formal limitations. (He spoke, on opening night, of loving the collaborative aspect of printing). For example, it took two years, 18 stones and 22 aluminum plates to make an early abstract color portfolio, Red Shift. The results are color-saturated lithographs (even Black 5th, a version in all black and grey, is multi-tonal) depicting a bubbling matrix dense with fiery sprays and clouds.

A lot of earlier prints (such as Places and Things, a linoleum-cut series from the early 1990s, and Shadows, drypoints) portray bodily landscapes where spaceship-like earthworks grow phalluses and cells in trippy colors. Figures start to emerge, though, and in The Sun, a digital print with intaglio from 2000-01, primitive cartoon characters chase each other with weapons in a white ring around the yellow orb.

Later, we get close-ups of these characters: In the Female Portrait series (2000), women are menacingly aggressive, deformed puzzles, all breast-like chins and gaping missing shapes in garish pink on light-blue backgrounds. Waiting for Wood numbers 1-3 (1995-96) are wood engravings on handmade paper that use embossment to give his boxy graffiti-style cartoon characters pimples or moles. Untitled (1996), a lithograph using 15 colors, depicts two windup- toy-like figures who growl at each other with square teeth and punch using protrusions that fit, key to lock, each other’s orifices. We’re never far from the baser instincts.

By the year 2000, a recurring character emerged, described by different critics as a Puritan, a Mr. Nobody, or my favorite, a “white dickhead wandering through a wasteland in a black suit.” The artist himself has said the character is “somewhere between Amish and gunslinger” and “a sightless humanoid with genitals growing out of its head in a funny hat.” He is not unlike a surreal Dilbert or Homer Simpson. In general, Dunham seems as related to Dr. Seuss and R. Crumb as he is to Yves Tanguy and Philip Guston.

The organizers of the exhibition emphasize the extent to which Dunham’s prints have influenced his paintings and drawings, and vice versa. What comes across, too, is the pliability of printmaking as a medium and the weird and wonderful worlds it can open up.

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