There are few artists whose works on paper rival the visual impact of their paintings. Marlene Dumas manages a sublime magic in her quick application of ink wash, watercolor, acrylic, graphite, gouache, and nearly any other mark-making material. Many of her drawings consist of quick sketches that seem to channel a stream of thought. An image can be formally vague and consist of only the rawest of physical elements. Or they can be heavily worked, handled with the sort of violence in gesture often associated with expressionism. At times an artist of words as well as images, her works often contain spare but ominously poetic text. Emotional and straightforward, her drawings can look like "distant relatives of cartoons and bathroom graffiti" (D. van der Boogerd in Marlene Dumas, London, 1999, p.64). Her portraits on paper are particularly visceral, each face made visible by pools of ink with scrawled gestures for expression.
Marlene Dumas' multi-part work The Garden consists of 62 drawings and one painting hangs in a grid format and tells a story so epic and archetypal that it attempts to relay the tale of good and evil. Made in 1993, it comes from a period in Dumas's work where installation--like grids of her works on paper were her concentration. Her Black Drawings from 1991-92 comes to mind which consists of 112 deeply characterized African faces locked in a frontal gaze with the viewer, as well as Chlorosis (Love Sick) from 1994 that illustrates the faces of 24 dejected and forlorn souls, which currently hangs in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The format of the multi-part works suits Dumas who as a painter more often works on a small scale. This allows her the closeness and intimacy with each portrait, while permitting her to actualize a work that is ambitious both in theme and scale.
The Garden refers to the Garden of Eden, with all its splendor and chaos. Dumas personalizes this idea by recalling her native South Africa, or Africa in general, and how the continent serves as a mythic fantasy about our notions of the Garden of Eden. The social and cultural terrain of South Africa has been at times an overt subject and at times the subtle underpinning of her work. The mere mention of Africa can conjure up wild illusions, as can the Garden of Eden, but their point of intersection in Dumas's work results in a study of human nature that touches on all of the possible narrative conflicts--man versus man, man versus animal, man versus nature, man versus himself.
At the center of the composition is Lucifer--Him--painted to show his sinister profile and protruding horns. He is the vortex in which the other creatures that populate The Garden emanate. A half-woman half-dog creature appears, tricked out in skimpy clothes, climbing a tree. The text reads," Barking up the wrong tree." A delicate spider web shows a human baby begin born from it. A figure in a grey wool suit jacket is rendered headless but sprouts two leafy branches in its place. A female with magnetic eyes behind a Muslim veil peers out with the text written on her forehead, "Not From Here", which was subsequently the title of her 1994 New York debut exhibition at the Jack Tilton Gallery. In another drawing, a human female morphs into a butterfly and she is shown in sequential positions: first, in flight and second, resting with her wings lowered in either relaxation or having fallen to death. A detail of male genitalia is mysteriously rendered with a toad's arms and legs. A gender-neutral couple embraces, but they appear more to be holding each other up, rather than engaged in a romantic tryst. A caricature of a tribal African woman replete with face paint and a grass skirt is accompanied by the text "War Paint." Cornered in a room, a mad dog scowls and looks at once dangerous and vulnerable. Black people, grey people, white people, animal people--they are all here. But familiar faces in Dumas's world appear as well. The renowned curator Jan Hout makes an appearance twice. A young and handsome image of the artist Mike Kelley gazes out with uncharacteristic angelic innocence. And the artist herself appears in a rare self-portrait, quietly watching all swirling around her in The Garden. The only painted element, a flower bouquet vaguely recalling the palette of Van Gogh's Sunflowers, represents the cliché imagery of a garden. Is it accidental that the only painting in the composition depicts a cliché? Is the artist implying that painting is burdened by its history of depicting beauty? Drawing seems free to explore the underbelly of humanity, but in the Garden of Eden, Dumas insists that painting remain relegated to its origins.
The Garden first appeared in a solo exhibition in Germany entitled The Land of Milk and Honey. The Garden of Eden denotes the reference to the creation of the universe in the first book of the Old Testament, Genesis. In the maelstrom of the making of the earth, Good and Evil exist in harmony, with the implication that good triumphs. The Land of Milk and Honey, refers to when God tells the people of Israel that he will rescue them from the land of Egypt and bring them to the Land of Milk and Honey. As Dumas fearlessly tackles these heroic subjects, life continues, with Good and Evil present at every turn.