"I am intimately involved with my subject matter in this painting. I am not disengaged from the subject of my gaze. You can't take a painting--you make a painting." - Marlene Dumas
Pressed up flush against the mirrored glass of an enclosed room in a provocative stance, Marlene Dumas' figure in Horns and Tail from 1999 is momentarily caught in the middle of an erotic striptease, frozen in time, posing for her voyeuristic viewers below. Her eyes are lightly shut, her head tilted upward towards something, maybe nothing, above her; her expression is blank and unfaltering, and reveals nothing of what she is thinking or feeling. A gifted painter, Dumas is notorious for her brazen depictions of both her female and male subjects, and equally well-known for the provocative titles that she chooses. The title Horns and Tail captures both the viewer's immediate preconception of this woman's vocation, stripper, and the typically conflicted emotions that come with it. Concurrently the artist challenges these notions, questioning the very morality of both the seductive acts of the stripper, as well as that of the owners of the ogling eyes below. Deeply involved yet objectively removed, Dumas presents her subject without pretense, bias or agenda; rather, the work becomes open to a world of interpretation.
In 1998, Dumas was approached by the Dutch photographer Anton Corbijn, who was interested in departing from his typical subject of male musicians and trying something new. Together, the two artists decided to collaborate on a series of portraits of strippers in Amsterdam. Beginning in October 1998 Corbijn and Dumas visited various gentlemen's clubs in search of the gritty, the unglamorous and the unique facets of the profession. While Corbijn's photographs aspired to emulate the intimate sensation of visiting a peepshow, Dumas' paintings from this series present her subjects clearly, openly, without the pretense of obscuring or concealing who the women are. Working from her own photographs taken during this process, Dumas' Horns and Tail depicts one such woman, donned with only a whip-like tail, Devil horns and white go-go boots, striking a pose very different from the way one is accustomed to regarding a stripper. Not only is she looking away, but she appears to be somewhere removed from her current surroundings, unaware of the captivated gaze of her imagined onlookers. Despite her devilish costume, the woman appears to be floating, surrounded by the heavenly clear panes of the glass around her. The abstraction of her surroundings allows the figure to exist removed from the nightclub context that usually typifies these references.
Numerous other artists have looked to brothels, nightclubs and theatre to expose the underbelly of the vibrant cosmopolitan city at the turn of the century, and whether with the purpose of revealing the human or vulnerable side of these characters or to think critically about the fate of the modern city, these artists have typically been male, often acting as the voyeur themselves. Impressionist artists like Edgar Degas turned to the back-stages of the ballet, while others, such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, found solace in the brothels of Paris, spending countless hours sketching the working women in his portfolio, Elles, from 1896. Toulouse-Lautrec's drawings presented the comfortable and extremely personal relationships between the women of the brothel rather than the erotic character of their business, tapping into the familial structures and humanity of these women so often dismissed and cast off by society. Two decades later, Ernst Kirchner portrays a group of prostitutes in order to capture the bustling atmosphere of pre-war 1913 Berlin in Street. At this point, the prostitute is brought right into the public domain, protected by their costume and makeup, that both act as armature and indicator of their profession to the gentleman swarming around them. Speeding ahead to Amsterdam in the year 1999, Dumas includes very few details to signify the woman's identity in Horns and Tail. Much more exposed than her historical predecessors, Dumas' figure dominates the foreground of the composition and leaves little to the imagination of her role or her vocation. Reminiscent of iconic scenes of Amsterdam's Red Light District, the woman seems to be posing to an unseen audience to the left of the composition rather than confronting the viewer head on. This accentuates the viewer's role as the voyeur and a non-participatory third party in the unfolding scene. Nudity, sexuality and displaced eroticism are familiar themes for Dumas. The artist revels in confronting these and other delicate or taboo themes, presenting the subject directly, without buffer or pretense, forcing the viewer to examine them head-on. Often calling on allusions to myth or fairy tale or art historical references, Dumas forces the viewer to take pause in order to first, examine the work as it appears in front of them, and second, to look inward at their own preconceived notions of the narrative that they conjure. In an earlier series that focused on the story of Snow White, the artist depicts the princess in various situations such as Snow White and the Broken Arm from 1988. Her detailed depiction of the sleeping maiden, surrounded by seven white male onlookers, clutching a camera, behind a foreground littered with Polaroid prints, offers an infinite number of possible narratives, and nearly overwhelms the viewer with symbolism. In these two works, Snow White and the Horns and Tail stripper are the same: they exist as tropes with which Dumas plays, both provoking the audience and pushing them to see what they will based on their own personal predilections.
While Dumas' work has consistently been analyzed in terms of its possible underlying narratives leading to multiple and often complex readings, Dumas insists that while she draws influence from a myriad of sources, she is most interested in maintaining an air of mystery throughout her body of work. "[My work] is suggestive; it suggests all sorts of narratives, but it doesn't really tell you what's going on at all...I give [the viewer] a false sense of intimacy. They think the work invites you to have a conversation with it" (M. Dumas, quoted in an interview with Barbara Bloom, Marlene Dumas, New York, 1999, p. 12). She continues to explain her desire to both remain empathetic and detached from her subject matter. In Horns and Tail, Dumas neither pities nor glorifies her subject; rather, the captured moment belongs to a specific present where the artist is nearly a voyeur herself, constructing the painting from one clandestine camera click.