With raucous humor and a biting brushstroke, Carroll Dunham integrates abstraction and figuration in Green Planet, presenting an exploding mass of brushstrokes. Three pairs of block-shaped people march the periphery of the central planetary shape, harassing each other and throwing punches with an aggression that mirrors that which is spewing from the planet’s surface. Various shades of verdant green partner with black to produce a palette sampled from a toxic waste dump. The painting teems and bubbles with an assortment of painterly marks, squiggling, scratching, looping, drooping and pooping across the canvas in an expressive scrawl that has no bounds, a no-holds-barred free-for-all. Whether a microcosm in a petri dish or a tragicomic metaphor for our own planet, Green Planet is a world unto itself of painterly exuberance.
Of Dunham’s paintings critic Robert Pincus Witten writes, “Without apology or false shame, Dunham had, at the time, taken up an impenitent range of transgressive images—comedic hard-ons for example, transcribed as if outlined upon a table or desk and outrageously striped or colored. Add scrotal dependencies, testicular scrums, turdlike masses, anal fissures, gingery tubers and intestinal buntings, and you can easily see how repugnant this could all be. To the contrary, however, the effects of these borborygmic paintings was and is blithely jocular. Dunham’s untrammeled organicities share pride of place with polite niceties, the more familiar range of acceptable abstract modes such as banglelike danglins, Pop-Ex snarls and explosions, layers of parallel registers—all painted in bright, candy colors or in moribund, mushroomy tones redolent of funk” (R. Pincus-Witten, “Reviews: Carroll Dunham,” Artforum, July 2008, p. 437). A prolific conjurer of images, Dunham has been linked to the Surrealism of the early twentieth century for his ability to draw from the deep well of his imagination. New York Times art critic Hilary Sheets describes Dunham’s paintings as “exuberant, irrational, menacing and comic. It slips fluidly between abstraction and representation. Creatures seemingly coalesce from the sludge of the subconscious, feeling their way through the painterly terrain by means of phallic protuberances and bared teeth that almost chew up the scenery. In incarnate, and sometimes wielding guns or bullwhips, these characters are undeniably appealing, cutting to the quick of rage and humor and frustration the way cartoons do” (H. Sheets, “Review: Carroll Dunham,” The New York Times, Oct. 27, 2002, n.p.).
Dunham, a stalwart artist of the past forty years, has progressed through a series of painterly concerns that have overcome the rough waters that challenged the medium through the 1980s and 1990s. Green Planet made its debut in Project Painting at Lehmann Maupin Gallery in 1996, an exhibition that surveyed trends in painting after the critical onslaught of the 1980s. Green Planet was also illustrated in the exhibition catalogue for Dunham’s 2002 retrospective at the New Museum, for which curator, art historian and critic Johanna Burton wrote, “It’s as though Jacques Derrida’s theory of Plato’s Pharmakon—that curative drug, depending on the amount administered, can function as easily as poison as remedy; and that in order to become immune to something deadly, one must ingest a bit of it—is the subtext for all of Dunham’s work. In homeopathic tradition, Dunham uses culture’s poisons as nearly lethal cures, injecting just enough of humankind’s toxic characteristics—greed, hate, envy, relentless self-absorption—to act as an immune system against them. In each ascending manifestation, Dunham’s inoculated mongrels grow increasingly resilient and evermore insatiable, a monstrous testament to the old adage what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” (J. Burton, “Carroll Dunham: Paintings, The New Museum, http://archive.newmuseum.org/index.php/Detail/Occurrence/Show/occurrence_id/395 [Accessed April 8, 2016]).