One of her main goals all along, she says, has been to “problematize the portrait,“ to question what it means to depict a human being on a rectangular canvas. “Yes, I paint portraits and I use the human figure, but actually I want to paint what you cannot see,” she says. “More the spirit of things, or the relationships and the dialogue between them.” The fact that she works from existing images and is not beholden to a sitter allows her a certain freedom. While discussing this, Dumas suddenly stands up and does a hammy impersonation of Lucian Freud—squinting and grimacing as he moves around his subject, examining how the light falls from various angles. She doesn’t work like that, she says.
Her own process usually begins late at night in her studio, where she likes to spread out on the floor, surrounded by dirty brushes, rags and tins of half-dried paint. “Marlene is messy,” says Butler. “Painting is a really physical process for her.” Andriesse contrasts Dumas’s technique with that of more precious painters who work only with choice pigments from Winsor & Newton. Though a skilled draftsman, Dumas grabs whatever is lying around. “She’ll use residue paint, thinned to the point where it’s almost turpentine,” Andriesse says. “She’ll paint with toilet paper.”
As Dumas shows me around her studio, a large ground-floor space in a nondescript part of town, it becomes clear that not all of her works take shape with the same speed and certainty of Dead Marilyn. She’s “a little bit stuck” on some paintings leaning against the wall. One, inspired by a photograph of a mummy, shows a spooky greenish figure with an extralarge head and spindly limbs, seemingly floating in midair. “This one feels a bit too E.T.,” Dumas says with a guffaw. Another, sourced from the album cover of the For Whom the Bell Tolls soundtrack, shows a tearful Ingrid Bergman, her cheeks dotted with oil paint that Dumas diluted with water. “I don’t know if I will exhibit this now,” she says. “Maybe it’s okay.”
In the next room are the shelves containing Dumas’s archive, a loosely organized set of binders jammed with everything from nude Polaroids of herself and Andriesse to a photo of Adolf Hitler’s mother. Dumas takes out a centerfold of a big-breasted Suzanne Somers look-alike that inspired a bawdy portrait called Miss January (1997). “This feels to me like a creature from outer space,” Dumas says. “In art there’s always this thing about ‘the other.’ Well, I’m a woman, but this still feels to me like some strange creature.”
Also in the studio are the source images for her recent series “Man Kind,” which may spark some controversy in the context of an American museum show. The paintings are close-up portraits of North African and Middle Eastern men, some based on posters of Palestinian suicide bombers, though Dumas has removed any culturally traceable details such as background and clothing, directing the viewer’s focus toward the men’s facial features. As much as the paintings seem to deal with issues of race in Europe, where waves of Muslim immigration have sparked new rounds of discrimination, they also clearly conjure 9/11 and Westerners’ perception of terrorists. Butler acknowledges that there was some nervousness at the museum about including the Bin Laden portrait in the exhibit. “First and foremost I think it’s a really beautiful and powerful painting,” Butler says. “And I think within that series of works it was important to include one or two of the more recognizable figures. With the more anonymous figures, you start reading them in terms of their ethnicity. There’s a kind of profiling that goes on. Meanwhile, the ones that you do know become strangely more anonymous and neutral in this context. And that tension is what’s so interesting.”