Text Jack Meijers, september 2010
Laurien Dumbar explores the boundaries between the two- and three-dimensional to investigate image and representation.
Going three times a day to the Wibra store to buy erasers because it was nice and warm? Painting in ski-suits? “You had to be there to understand.” Laurien Dumbar (1967, The Hague) recalls the merciless romance of cold, unheated studios at the start of her career. “From the second year the Willem De Kooning academy hardly had any workspace available. The academy seemed to rely on the self-sufficiency of the squatter generation. Essentially that’s what it came down to: you had to squat a building.” Dumbar is one of the initiators of Foundation B.a.d; an organisation managing abandoned spaces as artists’ studios. Twenty years on and B.a.d still provides permanent and temporary spaces for local and international artists. Dumbar: “We organize exhibitions and art events. We try to maintain a dynamic creative network alongside the existing museum and gallery circuit.” She has fitted-out her studio in an old yet centrally heated school building in Rotterdam’s Charlois neighbourhood. On the wall, new black and white acrylic paintings seem like distant cousins to her earlier, geometric representations in colour. “The old paintings developed in a straight line into what they are today. They still refer to landscape and are about perspective and space.”
It was while studying that Dumbar became aware of her analytical approach to the painting process. “I had doubts on whether it would have been better to study sculpture, and there remains a sculptural approach to my painting. Discussions on ‘a bit more green or red’ were wasted on me. To create clarity for myself, I began working with just four colours: yellow ocher, red, navy blue and olive green. I wanted to peel back the layers of painting.” Dumbar focused on spatial representations in which the painterly element functions as an object. “All the painterly elements were arranged in rows or into a perspectival space. The canvases became studies of spatiality. At a certain moment the picture plane itself became a sort of cabinet. I wanted to find out how to combine isolated painterly elements into a new painting in a new space.”
Dumbar is still exploring the boundaries between the two- and three-dimensional by investigating image and representation. "What does a paint stroke look like if you consider it as a loose, separate thing? I made paint strokes of plaster, which I cut out and then photographed." This analytical inversion of dimensions, and working with models from clay, plaster and paper lead to a kind of sculpture in miniature scale. The question of whether the representations are abstract or figurative is not easy to answer. Dumbar points out some Barbapappa-like mini sculptures. "What can you add to a form to give it an identity or character? When does a blob-like shape become an elephant?” These three-dimensional studies were the prelude to a series of small paintings where Dumbar experimented with the effect of a pictorial element. "Many people see it as an elephant wearing a wig! It is interesting to see how colour and recognition make works more accessible. I noticed that most people have less access to formal, abstract work in which all traces of reality are removed, and want to find meaning however hidden it may be. When I hang my small paintings in series people tend to look for a system that connects or separates the forms.”
The écriture automatique, sketchy, black and white drawings that Dumbar also makes, are the associative result of her space exploration. "They are unrestricted accumulations of two- and three-dimensional shapes." Recently she has been working large scale in black and white. “Initially my intention was to make an intermediate step to minimize my palette, and in return I think there is now a fascinating essence in this.” On the table are setups Dumbar has made using smeared clay. The clay is so thin, that it is almost paint. They turn out to be studies for the large, black and white paintings. “I photograph my smudged and scratched clay studies. From these I make black and white prints, on which I base my large canvases. You might think it complicated, but for me this studious preliminary stage is indispensible.” Dumbar’s large black and white paintings are like abstract, improvised posters, without letters, but with images of paint. Meaning is given as soon as the paint is applied to the canvas, but how? “I overlay two types of image to see where they touch and begin to relate to one another.” First she makes a solid black layer. Using a thick stick she smears white acrylic paint in one movement across the canvas; a trail of paint that’s also “paint without being painted.” Onto this she projects a photo of one of the smeared clay studies. Using masking tape and pencil, she creates a stencil to paint over by slicing away the documented form with a knife. “Acrylic paint gives me the feeling that I construct the painting, rather than painting it.”
“It’s laborious, but this production process creates the tension of the image. That's my sculptural impact. I once made frescoes and realised how fascinating it is to think back in layers. You see all elements, including colour, as building blocks for the image. It's comparable to the sensation I had when I first understood how a computer constructs a digital image. I try to analyze and defragment an image then puzzle it back together again. Chaos and order keep each other in balance. In the end, the unexpected is very important. Everyone has their own way to measure forms in relation to space." Dumbar recalls a fascinating documentary she recently saw. "Alexander Calder – known for his kinetic art – was visiting Piet Mondriaan’s studio. He thought it would be a great idea to have Mondriaan's blocks of colour as a mobile, independent of gravity, floating freely in space. Mondrian abhorred the idea. Ultimately, I think that's what the discipline is about: discovering how you relate to shape and color." Dumbar is a big fan of Philip Guston. "His career made a lovely full circle. After a figurative approach he developed into an abstract artist then he applied abstract elements in a figurative and cartoonish way. With Guston, lightness, absurdity and seriousness come together in an exemplary way."
EH&I september 2010