Works On Paper fair and Marlene Dumas

I know I never finished the piece on my last trip to London and I’ve got loads of my own work to catch up on, but I’ve been to London for the day and have a long train journey so I may as well scribble a few notes about the day while it’s fresh in my mind

Of the two places I visited today there is of course no contest the Marlene Dumas at Tate Modern is streets ahead of the Works On Paper fair. Having spent much less time at WOP I want sure how to make good use of my time. I nearly just stayed at the Science Museum. There’s always interesting stuff on there. I didn’t even know if the Dumas show had started; moreover I was unsure if I wanted to see it. I was not familiar with her work and hasn’t really read the publicity or reviews.

I was almost immediately moved and disturbed by the work. Whatever you might say about her, Dumas knows how to compose a painting to give it power and to convey strong emotions. Ugly, crude, rude, angry, exquisite, composed, uneasy – nearly every painting commands attention. You can see that she can draw and that she sees so much more than just the physical form, so Dumas distorts and simplifies at will to deliver images that assault the emotions. There’s no escape: every blow is a low punch. Sometimes you are confused in what you feel, but there’s no doubt that you feel it!

But she is exploring far more than creating strong shapes to cause reactions. There’s a wealth of cultural, political and artistic explorations and allusions that I cannot begin to write about now.

I’m not really competent to judge her work technically, but I suspect some would criticise her thin paint and scrappy presentation. Yet her choice of medium seems perfect for each piece, for example the louche and sordid use of watercolour when exploring the pornographic and erotic. For me it worked perfectly and the freedom with which she uses her materials holds many lessons for me. That’s not to say I liked her work. I don’t think I’d be able to live with any of it, but I think it is very strong work and highly recommend it. I recommend it to all, men and women. In the limited things I have read there seems to be a sense this is being touted as a women’s exhibition and the vast majority of visitors when I was there were women.

So what about the Works On Paper fair. Frankly it was mostly a pretty scrappy affair. So much of it seemed to be the dog ends of artists with a bit of a name. I was shocked that it was so traditional! When there is so much exciting work being done now on paper there was little to be seen. What little there was didn’t exactly push boundaries, being mostly representational and easy on the eye. The rest was stuff salvaged from artists’ dustbins and junk shops and apart from a couple of half-decent Bawden’s (not all were that good) and a few of the many Terry Frost cards I wouldn’t give house room to most of it. I suspect that is unfair of me. I’m sure there were gems I missed, I passed by because I was finding it a little sad that money gravitates to the familiar. I’m also sad that bad work from artists with a name sells for more than good work by the unknown.

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