Through the use of her signature soft, almost transparent washes of acrylic paint, Dumas evokes a layered response to this representation of childlike innocence, combining feelings of nostalgia with those of loss. The titular thumbsucker lacks definitive details and a recognizable identity, a purposeful choice on Dumas’s part to make the figure more relatable to men and women across ethnicities. A pale left shin contrasts with a lightly tanned right leg, the torso of the figure is built up of rich passages of black paint, and the right arm softly gradates into a white right hand and thumb inserted securely in the child’s dark face. These abrupt shifts in color deny any accessibility to biases or preconceived notions inherent to race or ethnicity. Deep in reverie, the child gazes forward, icy blue eyes fixed at a point outside the composition; alone, the child seeks comfort in his or her solitude by sucking his or her left thumb. The quiet resilience of this child in a lonely moment beautifully framed within the dramatically scaled canvas - a canvas that bears the specific hanging instructions on the reverse: “hang +/- 8 ½ inches from the floor, preferably in a corner.” Dumas here asserts her agency as an artist beyond the painting, activating her participation in the exhibition itself. Furthermore, Dumas’s brief but precise instructions act as a reminder of the increasing and crucial dialogue between art and audience.
The looming height of the present work accentuates how diminutive the child is, both physically in this narrowed space, but also mentally and emotionally as a developing human being. This is further accentuated by the dark ground upon which the child appears to be crouching. Rendered in a slightly darker and more saturated black paint, this mysterious background could be a piece of furniture or, perhaps, the shadow of a caring parent, keeping a watchful eye over their youthful charge. Through a nuanced handling of subject matter and method, Dumas weaves together the media of photography and painting, never surrendering to a definitive style of figuration or abstraction. Taking photographs as her source material for these paintings, Dumas succeeds in blurring the crisp lines of the photographs without compromising their immediacy, and in doing so, celebrates painting itself as a subject in and of itself.
At once lonely and carefree, lost in thought and carefully focused, Dumas’s Thumbsucker reveals the deft handling of paint and particular brand of contemporary portraiture for which the artist is revered and celebrated. Exemplifying her sustained dialogue with one of art history’s most sustained genres – portraiture – Thumbsucker personifies the emotional ambiguity that underpins Dumas’s ability to reconfigure present practices of image consumption. As the artist has explained, her work offers the viewer “a false sense of intimacy” through these entrancing figures: “I think the work invites you to have a conversation with it.” (The artist in conversation with Barbara Bloom in Dominic van den Boogerd, Barbara Bloom, and Mariuccia Casadio, eds., Marlene Dumas, New York, 1999, p. 12) By relishing in the uncertainty of the painted image, Dumas demonstrates the contemporary relevance of the medium and positions herself as among the preeminent figurative painters of her generation.
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