Painted in 1987 and exhibited at the Kunsthalle Bern, Marlene Dumas' Wet Dreams is an intimate portrait of a young man lost in thought. The monumentality of the canvas compels the viewer inwards to admire the figure at close range. Like Narcissus looking into a reflective pool, his downcast eyes focus on a small pool of liquid before him. Richly rendered in a palette of wine, aubergine, mahogany and cream, Dumas perfected the subject's silhouette with a prodigious use of rapid, impulsive brush marks, which invite us to revel in the glow of his alabaster skin and the lustre of his chestnut hair. Concentrating our gaze on the figure's crown, the boundaries between the sitter and viewer are split open. The deliberately close focus spills the viewer into the sitter's space, opening his body and mind to our scrutiny. As with all the greatest of Marlene Dumas' paintings, Wet Dreams stalks the territories of ambiguity and taboo. The intimate quality of the close-up portrait rendered through the impassioned, deliberate brushstrokes suggests the familiarity and tenderness one bestows upon a cherished relation. This intimacy coupled with the deliberately provocative title charges the painting with an erotic resonance, calling to question the subject of the man's dreams and the intimate, visceral quality of the pool before him.
Dumas is often described as an 'intellectual expressionist' in the tradition of such European greats as Edvard Munch, Emil Nolde, and Francis Bacon. Not unlike Bacon's practice of basing portraits on photographs, Dumas often refers to Polaroid pictures. While this process adds a documentary dimension to her work, Dumas makes a clear departure from any sense of recorded reality through her expressive treatment of paint. The bold and emotive colour palette of saturated red and violet imparts a dramatic air to Wet Dreams, distancing the portraits from reality through her loose, fluid brushstrokes. As the artist herself explains: 'I paint after the photo--the distorted afterglow of chemical reproduction, filtered through my clumsy attempts toward natural perception, and the preservation of a dubious habit' (M. Dumas, quoted in M. Dumas and M. van den Berg, Sweet Nothings, exh. cat., Galerie Paul Andriesse, Amsterdam, 1998, p. 24).
The ambiguity of the title and subject prompts any number of possible psychological and sexual speculations on both the inner thoughts of the man and the viewer. As Dumas herself has pointed out, her art is less narrative than, 'suggestive, it suggests all sorts of narratives, but it doesn't really tell you what's going on at all. Someone said that it feels as if something has happened, in the sense of an after-event, or alternatively that something's going to happen but you don't yet know what it is. It's as if I can make people think they are so close to me - that they believe I've addressed the painting directly to them. I give them a false sense of intimacy. I think the world invites you to have a conversation with it' (M. Dumas, quoted in B. Bloom, 'Interview', D. van den Boogerd, Marlene Dumas, London 1999, p. 12).
Presented to the viewer with an intense frontality and a tantalizing ambiguity, it is as if we the viewer are impelled to trespass upon the man's lucid dream. Dumas's unapologetic positioning of her work in this way underlines her profound interest in the line where public stops and private begins but also reveals a tension in the artist's own view of gender, voyeurism and the very act of painting.