View this artwork by appointment, at Tate Britain's Prints and Drawings Rooms
Touching Two Sides is a print depicting a biomorphic form. It is defined with black line in varying texture that covers the entire page, both inside and outside the form. The form itself fills the print, touching the margins on two sides as the title indicates. Two cartoon-foot bulges, at the end of skinny leg-like extensions, press against the bottom and left side of the paper, as though the form is struggling for balance. Between them, two large swelling curves suggest breasts or testicles through the curly-hair texture scratched onto the surface of the left one. Three long lip-like elements float horizontally in the ‘body’ of the form; they evoke both animal and vegetable structures. A tall, pointed irregular cone points upwards from the right side of the form. It is shaded with intense fine line, emphasising its curved structure. Little boxes and rounded blobs are dotted along its outline, suggesting decoration and two-dimensionality in contrast to the three-dimensional sense of curvature. Below the cone two protruding bulges sport spiky hairs and little blobs. Parallel lines in the background follow the form’s outlines, emphasising it and creating patterning that recalls cellular structure. This is also evident in the rectangular shape that tops the form, above several tyre-like bulges, and in the shaded spots on one of the ‘legs’. On the right side of the print, three dates scratched onto the printing plate appear in reverse, indicating that Dunham drew the image on the 17th, 20th and 24th October 1989.
Biomorphic forms like that depicted in Touching Two Sides are common in Dunham’s imagery of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Such works on paper as Floating Shape with Backdrop, 1989-90 (Tate P11892), Pumping Shape, 1990 (Tate P11894) and the print portfolio Shadows, 1989 (Tate P11882-91) all feature variations on the same form. Dunham has commented: ‘In my private lexicon I call them shapes. They probably have aspects of them that are like characters. They certainly have approached having some kind of personality at times. But they are first and foremost shapes in a figure ground relationship.’ (Quoted in Cameron, [p.14].)
Dunham’s drawings evoke biological diagrams of cellular structures or primitive life forms with cartoon personalities. He has claimed that his obsession with the shapes ‘is part of a desire to create beings or creatures’ (quoted in Drawings, p.6). At the same time he has said: ‘I draw things that are physically like me ... a presence with characteristics that I think I have too: asymmetry, rootedness, a relationship to its field of activity. Things that I think characterize my existence.’ (Quoted in Drawings, p.8.) Although his shapes all have hairs and animal bulges and orifices, the only clearly identifiable body parts they have are penises, often more than one, as in Floating Shape with Backdrop and Pumping Shape. Often these appear in combination with a vagina-like structure. In his works of this period, Dunham deliberately blurs the boundaries between inner and outer space and between two- and three-dimensionality. Rounded contours on the shapes’ bodies confer a sense of volume; at the same time the diagrammatic patterning covering the page, and sometimes extending off the bodies’ skin, reaffirms the flatness of the picture plane. Combining abstraction and figuration, the forms’ ambiguous body boundaries and their frequent ejection of liquids and other blobs result in a sense of chaotic, organic flow.
Dunham resists critical attempts to extract meaning from the forms as he feels this would destroy the access to and release of instinctual unconscious material this kind of expression permits him. He has explained that ‘it’s like having a séance with yourself – that’s exactly how I think about drawing and painting. As though I’m in contact with some part of myself that I can reach only via this behaviour. Things that are just drifting through your mental space become incarnate as drawings.’ (Quoted in Drawings, p.9.) Dunham’s processes may be understood as combining the colour and cartoon aesthetic of Pop Art and the unconscious intuition of Abstract Expressionism and its precursor Surrealism with the formal linear virtuosity of high Modernism.
Touching Two Sides was published by Universal Limited Art Editions, West Islip, New York State in an edition of fifty-two, 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, exhibition catalogue, Jablonka Gallery, Cologne 1992.