by Alfred Mac Adam
Myths & Mortals
DAVID ZWIRNER | APRIL 28 – JUNE 30, 2018
Marlene Dumas has had every accolade, every apotheosis a living artist could want. She could easily rest on her laurels but instead trades her laurels for myrtle, the evergreen with white flowers sacred to Venus. Which is to say, she focuses on the erotic, specifically female love. Her point of departure for this huge show of twenty-nine oils and thirty-three ink wash drawings is Shakespeare’s debut poem of 1593, Venus and Adonis, a Baroque exploration of a tale Ovid includes in Book X of his Metamorphoses, and a subject Giambattista Marino transformed into a literary labyrinth in his 1623 L’Adone.
In Ovid, Cupid accidentally pricks his mother Venus with one of his arrows, and she falls madly in love with the beautiful hunter Adonis. Ovid is clear: Venus is a victim of mad love, a pathological condition that makes the immortal goddess love the all-too-mortal hunter. When Adonis is killed by a wild boar, Venus sees to it that anemone flowers spring from his blood. He is traditionally linked to springtime and nature’s rebirth in early flowering and quickly dying flowers. The ancient Greeks even created “Gardens of Adonis,” either with cut flowers or quickly withering blooms to celebrate his holiday.
Shakespeare and Marlene Dumas short-circuit all of that. Lovesick without the excuse of Cupid’s arrow, the physically powerful Venus (she is a goddess after all) snatches Adonis off his horse, tucks him under her arm, and engages in date rape. And this demonstration of divine power and erotic frenzy is Shakespeare’s point: Venus becomes a macho celebrity, wishing she were a man and Adonis a woman and chiding the indifferent Adonis for not wanting to have sex with her when so many gods (Mars especially) would do anything for such an opportunity. Dumas transforms this gender inversion into a brilliant commentary on male-female relations by conquering the traditional territory of male artists: the nude. Amends (2018) is a full-frontal male nude we view over the shoulders of female spectators.
This cheesecake rendition of the male body she replicates in her Adonis (2018), an almost identical male figure. Here, Adonis, hands at his sides, stares at us, empty of emotion. He is not really beautiful, which is Dumas’s way of saying the object of love is not necessarily beautiful in itself but made beautiful by the projected desire of the lover. Beauty, in fact, is not important in Dumas’s expressionist style, which does, however, explode in its depiction of emotional states.
Oils like Kissing (2018) and Tongues (2018) or ink drawings like Venus Insists, Venus in Bliss, or Venus Praises the Pleasures of Love (all 2015 – 2016) capture erotic fury without being in the slightest pornographic. This is a feat in itself. Dumas’s gestural style swerves her subjects toward abstraction so that we are enthralled by the idea of the erotic rather than its spectacle. If anything is aroused by these works, it is the intellect. This reminds us of Shakespeare’s bizarre blending of comedy, tragedy, eroticism, and chastity. His love-sick Venus is ridiculous and oafish despite the fury of her passion, but at the same time the innocent, sexless boy must be killed by the savage but equally innocent boar. And it is here Dumas parts company with Shakespeare. She reroutes his exploration of female sexual arousal beyond grotesque caricature to deliver a sense of emotional depth that is potent and profound.
ContributorAlfred Mac Adam
ALFRED MAC ADAM is professor of Latin American literature at Barnard College-Columbia University. He has translated works by Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, Juan Carlos Onetti, José Donoso, and Jorge Volpi among others. He recently published an essay on the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa included in The Cambridge Companion to Autobiography.