Carroll Dunham

[ARTIST]

“When I Started, I Wanted to Make Paintings That Any Idiot Could Make. You Didn’t Need ‘Talent’ to Make These Paintings. You Just Had to Think in a Certain Way.”
Metaphors for art-making:
The search for Orgone energy
Tending one’s own little patch
Tearing the veil from one’s eyes

The world of Carroll Dunham’s art is a faraway place, deep in the unconscious, where perennial myths and night terrors are born. His painted images go straight through the eyes, back to that lizard part of our brain—violence, sex, genitals, color.

Dunham spends years cultivating small plots of his world, developing each glyph of his visual language with the sort of long-term, exploratory scope that a science-fiction novelist might use. Early on, he spent a decade painting in a pool of hallucinatory, anatomical abstraction, growing organs and biomorphic shapes individually, until little angry faces and fat bodies began to sprout. Eventually, an anthropomorphized sun was born, a tree, a mountain—all the basic building blocks of any world.

Over the next decade, he built an electric, masculine dystopia. Its primary inhabitants were menacing, eyeless, penis-nosed men, with gritting teeth, wearing suits and stovetop hats. Through hundreds of drawings, prints, paintings, and sculptures, Dunham compulsively re-created these figures from various angles and positions, sometimes in a vast, barren wasteland, or in a cabin, or with guns, until the world seemed to have been comprehensively mapped.

Since 2010, Dunham has begun working in another territory: the heaven to the previous decade’s hell, a paradisiacal, feminine land with large, flapping flower petals, abundant foliage, blue skies, and rolling hills. Here lives a nude, pink-skinned woman who is forever diving into pristine water, her anus and vulva and black hair aimed at the painting’s beholder, as if we were a newborn projecting from her womb.

And yet for Dunham, these subjects, so bold and direct, are not his primary concern. Figures and scenes are just the skeletons on which he can drape skin in a seemingly infinite number of arrangements, the way a blues musician uses the blues, or a poet occupies a sonnet. Through these standard forms—the nude, the cartoon, the landscape—Dunham can transform abstract thought into worldly shape.

For the following conversation, Dunham and I met at his gallery, Gladstone, in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York, where an exhibition of his recent “Bather” paintings was hanging. Dunham is an avid reader, and, in addition to art, we discussed Philip K. Dick, Wilhelm Reich, Frank Herbert, and Carl Jung.

—Ross Simonini

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Ross Simonini is an artist, writer, and musician living in New York. He is the interviews editor of the Believer and the executive producer of KCRW's the Organist. His website is rosssimonini.com.

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