Dunham was educated at Trinity College, Hartford in Connecticut and moved to New York City, where he still lives and works, in 1972. Attracted to the works of such Minimalists as Brice Marden (born 1938) and Robert Ryman (born 1930), in the early 1980s Dunham began painting on bare wood. He paid special attention to the knots and nodes integral to the planes of wood, painting around them in a style that combines the chaotic scribbles typical to the paintings of Cy Twombly (born 1928) with a Pop aesthetic of bright, bold dayglo colours and the bold, black outlines of cartoons. His highlighting of the orifice-like wood nodes – an inevitable part of its naked organic structure – developed into an obsession with biormorphic forms and a prolonged engagement with the figure-ground relationship, a product of his combination of abstraction with figurative imagery. Through the 1980s and into the 1990s, Dunham embraced the Surrealist interest in expressing products of the unconscious, creating forms that blend delicate geometric linear patterns with more solid curvaceous structures that recall the paintings of Matta (Roberto Matta Echaurren, 1911-2002) and Joan Miró (1893-1983).
Point of Origin marks a point in the development of Dunham’s imagery from defined forms floating in a textured background, typical of the late 1980s and 1990, into forms arising out of a larger body or ground extending beyond the picture plane that began to appear in his paintings in 1991. In a series of paintings entitled Group D and Group E made in 1991, and the subsequent Integrated Painting One, 1992 (Metro Pictures, New York), the form emerges from the margins of the canvas either as a rectangular growth rising out of a large mound, or as a complex, engulfing structure the limits of which are imaginatively situated beyond the canvas. In all these paintings the form is clearly distinguished from its background by strong black outlines and a greater compositional simplicity than previously manifested. Point of Origin is based on the structure of a rectangular growth arising from a larger horizontal ground – the horizontal line representing the earth in children’s drawings – extending beyond the picture plane. However, its features suggest the eruption of molten liquids or lava rather than a solid biomorphic structure. In place of the strong black outline and monotone blocks of intense colour in his paintings of this period, Dunham exploited the printing techniques of lithography and etching to create areas showing poured, swirled, washed and dribbled paint, energetic brushstrokes, imprints in pools of liquid and fine, scratchy lines chaotically scribbled over the both background and the form. Comprised of vibrant reds and rich olive green, the ‘form’ appears more a pulsing volume of liquids than a creature contained within a skin. The title evokes primal creation and – in the context of Dunham’s earlier biomorphic forms, such as those depicted in the print portfolio Shadows, 1989 (Tate P11882-91) and the print Pumping Shape, 1990 (P11894), which sport multiple penises and spurt liquids and sperm – ejaculation.
Dunham has commented:
I seem to begin a painting by following my nose. I always begin by drawing a shape and I usually change the shape while I’m painting it. I have an idea about how I want to paint the shape and there may be a general direction about the colour that I want to use. Then I try to go into it and let the painting be around me over a period of time so that I can get to know it and how it feels. And nudge it in one direction or another. But when it clicks in, when the painting seems to be done, is when it becomes itself. Its character is established. I don’t mean its character in terms of a character in a story. I mean its nature. The emotional tone is clear and not garbled. It must have to do with something I want to feel when I look at them ... when ... I have completed a painting .... I spend a long period of time looking at the painting and trying to hear what it’s telling me. There’s an idea I have that I’m receiving this rather than creating it.
(Quoted in Cameron, [p.15].)
Point of Origin is an exceptionally large print, its scale emphasizing its painterly qualities. It was produced by Universal Limited Art Editions, West Islip, New York State in an edition of thirty, of which Tate’s copy is the fifth.
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.