Carroll Dunham

Pumping Shape


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Carroll Dunham born 1949
Etching on paper
Image: 350 × 475 mm
Presented by the American Fund for the Tate Gallery, courtesy of a private collector 2000


Pumping Shape is a print depicting a hermaphroditic biomorphic form. It is defined with simple black line which covers the page in texture, both inside and outside the form. The Pumping Shape floats in space, extending to the margins of the paper with its limbs and the liquids it empties into its surroundings. Like the form depicted in Dunham’s painting of the same year, Shape with Entrance (see Tate L02310), the subject of this print is composed of two large rounded curves swelling outwards on either side of a vagina-like structure. A small bent limb-like form extends from one side of the body above the rounded bases to press against the margin of the print with a bulge resembling a giant cartoon foot. On the other side a much longer, thicker limb ending in a pointed cone reaches upwards. From this a penis and a single, hairy testicle hang above an extension of the body which seems to be pouring into a pool embedded in a textured layer at the bottom of the paper. Directly above the vagina, a large penis-head tops the body, spurting liquid upwards in elongated drops. Below, the vagina ejects small round hairy blobs. As the work’s title suggests, the image is full of movement, both in the substances leaving the body and in the multiple textures and forms drawn around it.

Biomorphic forms like that depicted in Pumping Shape are common in Dunham’s imagery of the late 1980s and early 90s. Such works on paper as Floating Shape with Backdrop, 1989-90 (Tate P11892), Touching Two Sides, 1989-90 (Tate P11893) 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. 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.) At the same time he has claimed that his obsession with the shapes ‘is part of a desire to create beings or creatures’ (quoted in Drawings, p.6). 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 this print and in the painting Shape with Entrance, these may appear in combination with a vagina-like structure. In all these works, 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 ejection of liquids and sperm 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 his work 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.

Pumping Shape was published by Universal Limited Art Editions, West Islip, New York State in an edition of thirty-eight, of which Tate’s copy is the fourth.

Further reading:
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.

Elizabeth Manchester
June 2006

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