This is the first in a suite of thirteen images in a portfolio entitled Female Portraits. The portraits depict a blonde-haired female character emerging from the lower margin in a series of thirteen profile positions orientated vertically or horizontally. The character has no eyes or nose; her thick lips protrude dramatically baring grimacing teeth that may be clenched together or open wide in the evocation of a yell. As in his earlier print portfolio Shadows, 1989 (Tate P11882-11891) and in various drawing and painting suites of the late 1980s and early 1990s, Dunham has used the structure of a series to show a range of moods or states in a single subject. Although the portraits vary in apparently developmental ways – in some of the images a head suggesting a foetus or infant grows from the character’s flesh either inside or outside its body – there is no recognisable narrative structure to the suite. Other variations include the elongation of the nipple on the subject’s single breast into a phallus (in numbers eight, nine and ten), the appearance of fluffs of yellow hair on either sides of a passageway into the body evoking pubic hair (in numbers two, five, six, eight, ten, eleven and twelve), tendrils suggesting the filamented wall of the womb in the internal space this passage leads to (in numbers one, three, ten, eleven and thirteen), a large opening in the back of the head (in numbers two, nine, ten and twelve), long narrow growths evoking arms or phalli gesticulating out of the body (in numbers six, eight and ten) and the horizontal extension of the body flesh into a contoured landscape (numbers seven, ten, eleven and thirteen).
The female character is drawn in the style of a cartoon, using strong black line filled in by areas of four flat colours: sky-blue background, pink flesh, white teeth and yellow hair. She is enclosed in a window on each page, also defined by strong black line, reinforcing the cartoon associations. The internal spaces of her body open to the outside through passages are coloured blue like the background recalling the two-dimensional mapping of biology diagrammes. At times vertical and active and at others more horizontal and passive, in all the portraits the subject emits a powerful sense of aggression. This is expressed by Dunham’s energetic line, the shape of the mouth, always seen in profile, and the bared teeth.
After a decade dedicated to abstracted biomorphic forms only identifiable as beings through their sexual organs, recognisably human characters of the type depicted in the female portraits began to emerge in Dunham’s work in the late 1990s. At first they appeared as series of decorative growths arising from a larger form – earthy mounds, geometric structures suggesting buildings and whole, globular planets floating in space. In these works, small human heads and torsos sport ejaculating penises, either in the position of their noses or below a mouthful of bared teeth, and hold poses of violent confrontation with their neighbours, suggesting a community at war – a metaphorical representation of violent internal forces. In such paintings as Demon Tower, 1997 (collection of Rachel and Jean-Pierre Lehmann), the characters extend along all three sides of a rectangular tower arising from brown ground, brandishing sharp daggers and whips as well as the knob-headed penises. Beautiful Dirt Valley, 1997 (collection of Rachel and Jean-Pierre Lehmann) depicts a four-breasted female character with similarly bared teeth, sitting in a trough below a rain of ejaculate from a host of male characters on one side balanced by men holding knives and a whip on the other. Later, as in Shoot the Messenger, 1998-9 (private collection), the weapon became a gun. In this painting a male character points a gun at a blond female of the type represented in Female Portraits. In 1999 Dunham began to focus exclusively on a single character clearly defined as either male or female. Such male characters as that portrayed in Suit, 1999 (collection of Ninah and Michael Lynne, New York) are always clothed. Like those depicted in the Female Portraits, female characters in his paintings Portrait (Yellow Hair), 1999 (collection the artist) and the paintings developed subsequent to the print portfolio, also entitled Female Portraits, 2000, are unclothed and defined by their breasts and inner (womb) space.
Dunham drew the outlines of the thirteen Female Portraits by hand, before scanning them onto a computer and manipulating and colouring using Photoshop. The portfolio was digitally printed on Japan paper in an edition of twenty-three by Universal Limited Art Editions, West Islip, New York State. Each print is numbered one to thirteen, signed dated and editioned in pencil; Tate’s copy is the eighteenth in the edition.
Dan Cameron, Carroll Dunham: Paintings and Drawings, exhibition catalogue, Jablonka Gallery, Cologne and Sonnabend Gallery, New York 1990.
Carroll Dunham: Drawings 1988-1991, exhibition catalogue, David Nolan Gallery, New York 1992.
Carroll Dunham: Paintings, exhibition catalogue, New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York 2002, pp.133, 141.