Between 1998 through 2000, Marlene Dumas and the photographer and film director Anton Corbijn embarked on a project resulting in a joint exhibition, Strippinggirls, held at the Theatermuseum, Amsterdam in 2000. For this project, they both visited strip joints with their cameras; while Corbijn exhibited photographs in the show, Dumas took Polaroids which she then used as sources for her pictures. Painted in 1999, Dancer appears overtly linked to this project: the woman is shown naked, in a provocative pose, still wearing her boots, an accoutrement that emphasises the process of stripping that this dance appears to follow. Dumas has employed a provocatively jarring palette: instead of flesh tones, the body is blue against the bruised pink and brown of the background. She has thus deliberately bled this picture of some of its erotic potential.
For Dumas, the theme of the striptease and of the sex trade in general touched upon several of the fundamental issues that have long driven her during her distinguished career. The role of women, the role of looking, the role of the nude, not least as the mere object, not least in the Old Master tradition of the male gaze... In Dancer, Dumas is invoking all of these issues:
'The public display of nudity has always been one of my main artistic interests, as well as the reasons given to justify or banish it.
'The traditional (male) painter uses it to promote higher aesthetic values, the fashion model to promote clothes, the porn industry to promote masturbation, while film stars only do it if its part of the story.
'Most people dont do it at all...
'And the teaser makes you beg for it (Dumas, quoted in D. van den Boogerd, B. Bloom & M. Casadio, Marlene Dumas, London, 2009, p. 139).
Where many of her earlier naked figures had been victims in some sense, the dancers of Strippinggirls, like the subjects of her MD-Light series the previous year, are in control, are active, are using their bodies, forcing the viewer into a compromised position. It is the striptease that has here fascinated Dumas, the sense of the implied yet intangible, that elusive promise, that sense of tantalisation and titillation. Dumas is intrigued by the loss of the erotic in the modern world, and here explores it in an image that, in its brushwork, has a sensitivity that teeters, despite the incongruous colours, on the brink of sensuality, yet is clearly ambiguous, problematic.
Dumas use of the dancer as a figure throws into question the entire nature of display, of art. She, as painter and originally as photographer, is the viewer, yet her role is parallel to that of the subject: exhibition is a means of control, yet one involving an inherent sense of risk, of vulnerability. At the same time, there is that sense of deliberately withholding something, be it sex, as in the case of the dancer or, in the case of Dumas own paintings, a clear narrative or overly easy interpretation. Dumas deliberately disrupts and complicates the notion of the picture as a means of communication. There is a deliberate veil between viewer and image, a subjective layer of interpretation that makes the dancer all the more apt a parallel for her works. As she herself has stated, 'My art is situated between the pornographic tendency to reveal everything and the erotic inclination to hide what its all about (Dumas, quoted in I. Bonacossa, 'Update: Further than the 'I Can See, pp. 161-215, D. van den Boogerd, B. Bloom & M. Casadio, Marlene Dumas, London, 2009, p. 167).