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Tree 3

Dunham, C.
Tree 3
signed with the artist's initials and dated 'C.D. 2018-19' (lower left); signed, titled again and dated again '"Tree 3" 2018-19 C. Dunham' (on the stretcher bar)
urethane, acrylic and graphite on linen
84 x 60 in. (213.4 x 152.4 cm.)
Executed in 2018-2019.
Gladstone Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Kunsthalle Düsseldorf and Spengel Museum Hannover, Carroll Dunham / Albert Oehlen: Bäume / Trees, November 2019-October 2020, pp. 158-159 (illustrated).

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Lot Essay

Original, often unpredictable, and impossible to pigeonhole into one trend or art movement, Carroll Dunham has been nurturing the discourse around abstraction and figuration since the early 1980s. With the work Tree 3, he once again proves his ability to master and reinterpret an art-historically, philosophically, and symbolically ancient subject, like the tree, with humor, irony, and a unique degree of subjectiveness.

Carroll Dunham’s Tree 3 depicts a cartoon-like tree on its side, suggesting it has fallen from its upright position. The colors of the composition, particularly the punchy blue sky and lime green leaves of the tree, are vibrant, suggesting a joyful liveliness that juxtapose the tree’s fallen position. The graphic line of the black contour in Tree 3 plays a crucial role in the composition, distinguishing itself from a realistic tree by creating an irregular, unpredictable, and “unruly” painting. Here, lines become “boundar[ies] to the form” and seem—as pointed out by scholar Olga Nevzorova—to “uncontrollably spring from the artist’s subconscious, similar to the Surrealist practice of automatic drawing” (O. Nevzorova in Carroll Dunham / Albert Oehlen: Bäume / Trees, exh. cat., Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, 2019, p. 164). While the tree lies on its side, the bushy foliage remains fixed in its position – it does not droop but rather remains firm in a generic tree shape. The tree has both succumbed to gravity yet manages to defy it, suggesting playfulness and absurdity.

Tree 3
embodies Dunham’s never-too-serious approach to painting and the transgression of his painting practice over his 30-year-long career. Among the main artists of North American neo-expressionists in the early 1980s, Dunham went beyond the borders of the New Image Painting movement by widening its stylistic repertoire under the influence of Philip Guston and Ashlie Gorky through the introduction of elements from comics, science fiction, and pop culture. His art developed an extremely intriguing and idiosyncratic language in which the tree, having first emerged in the background of Dunham’s late 1990s paintings, was brought to the foreground of his works—first together with images of bathers, then alone—to combine both subjective feelings and art-historical awareness.

Recently included in the exhibition Baume / Tree in Düsseldorf along with works by Albert Oelhen, Tree 3 tells a story of “peaceful retreat and renewed struggle” in which Dunham’s fearless adoption of the kitsch creates a visually and conceptually powerful image (ibid, p. 161). Referencing the artist’s own life circle, art history, and forces of nature, Tree 3 stands as one of the most compelling works within the Tree series and epitomizes the inclination toward transformation and change as the basis of Carroll Dunham’s oeuvre.

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