Carroll Dunham is a leading American painter best known for his large-scale canvases and distinctive figuration. Dunham’s works span a variety of genres, from pop to graffiti and from surrealism to landscape. He is perhaps best known for his formal vocabulary, which features animals and naked bodies in playful and often action packed tableaus.
Dunham was born in New Haven, Connecticut and grew up in Old Lyme, Connecticut. He received his Bachelors degree from Trinity College, Hartford in 1972. During his time at Trinity college, under the tutelage of La Noue, Dunham spent a summer working for Canadian abstract painter Dorothea Rockburn. Rockburn’s work undoubtedly influenced Dunham’s own burgeoning practice. Rockburn is perhaps best known for her interest in mathematics and astrology. Her practice was therefore built on precision; she is known for her colorful and geometric works as well as her simpler line-based installations. While Dunham’s figurative work is clearly different from Rockburne’s abstract work, Rockburne’s diligence and focus on precision had an effect on Dunham’s practice.
In the 1970s Dunham worked a variety of different jobs, including a stint as a magazine layout editor. Dunham began to develop his distinctive visual language with his first major artistic development in the early 80s. He began to use plywood and found wood in his work, often painting over the wood while following its grain and natural form. He also developed his distinctive curved lineation in this period. These works are noted for their graffiti influence.
It was at this time that Dunham also began to create the fantastical scenes that have become a major part of his work. His intensive use of color and combination of background and foreground in his work are the hallmarks of his new style. Often veering between figurative and abstract forms, these paintings also reflect the more general return to surrealism, especially in painting, by artists in the early 1980s. This series also focused on the process of painting and Dunham’s marks and outlines were often visible in the completed works. Another important part of this body of work was that the “Wood” paintings were all vertical rather than horizontal. His next major body of work was his “Shape” series, which, unlike his wood paintings, were horizontal. The “Shape” series consists of large horizontal, heavily colored paintings with an abstract figure in the center. Dunham usually covered more of the canvas with paint, unlike the wood series where Dunham highlighted the material itself.
Late on, in the 90s, Carroll Dunham developed a new figure that has since become central to his status. His “Killer” painting depicts a heavily abstracted figure in a top hat pointing a gun. The figures left arm is absent and is replaced by geometric shapes. Dunham often uses flat, geometric forms that recall Mayan and Aztec art. The “Killer” figure has since been repurposed in later paintings of Dunham’s and is one of his more important motifs.
Over the last two decades, Dunham’s work has trended more toward cartoonish figure and away from the graffiti-influenced paintings he produced in the 1980s. One marker of this transition is his reliance on flat forms and broad color fields and his use of more traditional backgrounds and figures. Instead of creating colorful explosions of body parts and geometric shapes, Dunham now creates works with a more heavily narrative element. Another important development in his work, and one that has perhaps been a polemical one, has been his series of paintings of naked men and women with exposed genitalia. These graphic compositions have nature-filled backgrounds in a play on both the work of Gauguin and, more broadly, images of idyllic places and people. Dunham’s use of the grotesque and the tension between beautiful landscapes and often-monstrous bodies has become one of the definitive parts of his practice in recent years.
Carroll Dunham has had numerous one-person shows at both national and international spaces. He had a retrospective at the New Museum as well as a show at the Millesgarden in Stockholm. His work is in many public collections such as the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the Walker Center, and the Tate Gallery. Dunham is represented by Gladstone Gallery in New York.