ways to make a world: Dunham’s Untitled (1).
Dunham Prints: A Survey
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
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
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
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.