Marlene Dumas, The Painter, 1994, oil on canvas, 200 x 100cm
In the late 1990’s I was attending art school in the U.K. on a student exchange. I was a painter then, trying to figure out what that actually meant and how I wanted to paint (while the weight of the YBA’s hung heavily on me and every other art student’s shoulder at that time). Frequent trips to London galleries and museums were the first times I really got exposed to that volume of the art world, the first time I was able to choose what exhibitions to see with likeminded peers. When I first saw the paintings of Marlene Dumas, I fell in love. Coming from a figurative background, I was initially struck by her ability to capture the body, especially the face/eyes. Her simple washes of paint, or watery ink gestures were so direct and at the same time uncanny and unnerving. It’s how I wished I could paint. What to leave unfinished? What element is important to render completely and what can be just a smudge? Her work The Painter has always stayed with me. It was part of a group of works at that time that depicted child-like figures. Dumas called them, “Imagined Beings” and said they were “closer to the world of ghosts and angels, daydreams and nightmares than to real people.”
The rendering of the face in this work is my favorite part. The dark wash of the eyes just sucks you into their watery void and the sketched lines that delineate the cheeks and mouth are so effortless. It’s the hands however, that I always go back to in this work. The eyes and the hands need each other’s boldness to create a triangular symmetry. The hands ground the work with the intensity of the color. Dumas uses red in quite a few portraits, often as a wash over the face. It’s bold and jarring, and it flattens the form beneath it, erasing details. It’s red like memory is red or how, when you close your eyes because the sun is too bright, your eyelids create that deep red shadow. It’s blood red and that creates a visceral reaction. Aesthetically, it creates a foci of visual weight that anchors a work that’s so light and airy it’s barely there.
I’m drawn to images and advertisements that have soiled hands, hands covered in inks or paints. It’s ritualistic. It goes against what ideal hands are supposed to be in our society: clean, manicured, soft for a woman; strong, healthy for a man. As an artist, my hands are never in good condition; they are dry, calloused, coated in material remnants. It’s part of the uniform. We’re coming up on the aftermath of something.
Dumas, Josephine, 1997, ink wash, watercolor on paper,123 x 70 cm
Maja Ruznic, Mother (Green Hand), 2021, oil on linen, 70 x 60 in
In 2020, I saw the work of Maja Ruznic in person for the first time and had the same gut reaction as when I saw Dumas. There was a kinship to their gestural figures. So many disappeared details of the body. Strange small embellishments. Large swaths erased. Ruznic’s paintings incorporate the background in a way that Dumas doesn’t. They remind me of Edward Munch much the way Dumas reminds me of Egon Schiele. Ruznic’s handling of paint creates layers of ethereal space that manage to have both a palpable, scumbly texture as well as a ghostly lightness. In addition to her large oil paintings, Ruznic makes watercolor and ink works that are immediate and instinctual, reconfirming that the painted body can manifest out of just a few choice details.
While a figure may be present, Ruznic’s paintings begin from abstraction and hold onto that whisper as a body emerges. The images feel burned or stained into the canvas, like the figures have made their imprint on the material and that’s all that’s left of them. A shroud. A negative. A sunspot. Hands and fingers are burnished into the canvas. In Ruznic’s recent exhibition at the Harwood Museum of Art, the hands and fingers are some of the only detailed moments in a highly abstracted grouping of “figurative” work. These limbs are the last chance to grab onto the figure before it disappears completely.
Maja Ruznic, The Painters and Their Daughters III, 2020, acrylic and oil on canvas, 70 x 60 in
Both Dumas and Ruznic use heavy subject matter as the starting point for their work, and emotions are palpable in the paint. Oppression, trauma, mythology, identity, and memory are all in discussion. The weight of each painting’s origin story is reflected in shifts of balance. Heavy. Light. At times, dark and oppressive to the point of suffocation. At other times, weightless.
What I take from these two artists back to my studio practice is the economy of gesture. How it all comes down to mark making: the efficacy of simplification. How much can you remove and still be a body in space?
MaryKate Maher, Reliquary (white head), 2022, resin, hydrocal, polyester, dye sublimation print on aluminum, imitation gold leaf, sharpie, acrylic paint, 18 x 9.5 x 5 in
MaryKate Maher is a visual artist based in Brooklyn, NY. She received her MFA from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 2004. Recent exhibitions include Gold Scopophilia, NJ; Hesse Flatow, NY; MoCa Westport, CT; Yi Gallery, NY and JEFF, TX. marykatemaher.com