at the Arts Club of Chicago, through March 5

On view at the Arts Club of Chicago is the work of Marlene Dumas, a South African-born painter in her late 30s who’s lived in Amsterdam since 1976. This haunting body of work, some 20 oil paintings and ink-wash drawings, depicts the Western female in the context of a complex mythic history. Dumas examines the contradictions that women as subjects have endured within Western patriarchal culture, challenging traditional representations of women as the focus of men’s sexual longing. Dumas supplants such passive images–perpetuated through pornography, art history, and fairy tales–with ambiguous images that sometimes express a sense of violation and anger.

Entering the gallery, one is first struck by a large wall filled with portraits of women. Female is made up of 210 various-sized drawings coolly arranged in a grid and pinned up as if they were photographs: Dumas works from photos. It’s surprising how fresh she’s able to keep the medium, painting boldly in black and gray almost abstractly but with distinct clarity.

The faces show a wide range of age, race, and expressivity, the beautiful and sensual set alongside the plain and elderly. But their placement is also eerie, as if this were a photo arrangement of missing persons, family snapshots used to identify crime victims. By titling the piece Female and placing the images as she does, Dumas slyly indicts our culture, which makes women anonymous and betrays their histories by ignoring them: Dumas seems to see women of different circumstances and races melting into a plethora of forgotten beings. But given the sheer number of images, they begin to seem the reality of womanhood, which is implicitly juxtaposed with the myth of the fantasized woman.

While many postmodern feminists have attempted to dismiss objectified images of women by imposing their own didactic language to counter the standards of Western art, Dumas uses images of women in a much more ambiguous way. She makes herself complicit with certain cultural roles while showing discomfort with others. Her women subjects have only an uncertain selfhood, because when mythic expectations are eroded, the “self” may well be lost.

This is best stated in two small oil paintings, Waiting (for Meaning) and Losing (Her Meaning). (Though Dumas’ oils are conceptually strong, they lack the visceral impact of the ink-wash drawings, which are more confident.) In Waiting a woman’s body lies on a table draped with cloth. The body, surrounded by a murky, grayish blue ground, is left partly unpainted, and the subject appears to be waiting expectantly. It is up to the viewer to make the image “complete,” to fill the woman in. Dumas implies that the subject/woman cannot complete herself–she waits for a completion that only the artist/viewer can make.

In Losing (Her Meaning), a stooping woman stands in water with her face immersed. In this work, the subject is filled in, but this completion obliterates the woman’s selfhood: she does not see herself. If “woman” exists as a sexual icon, she is defined by the culture yet lost to herself. Conversely, if she is not defined as a vessel of sexual fulfillment, she loses her cultural meaning.

Yet Dumas’ erotic images make it difficult to hold her to a set, didactic point of view. In a piece called Pornoblues, Dumas presents a difficult dilemma: the female not only as sexual object but as voyeur of her own sexual objectification. In six highly charged drawings framed together, a nude seated female with her genitalia exposed examines herself in a mirror in a variety of poses. These images are strongly reminiscent of the German painter Anselm Kiefer: he painted a similar series of watercolors in 1988, “Erotic in the Far East.” But unlike Kiefer’s images–which, steeped in German myth, are warm and abstract in their celebration of earthly delights–Dumas’ offer little comfort. The buoyant bodies of her nudes sharply contrast with their murky, blue masklike faces. The images suggest that the woman/subject might enjoy her objectification, yet the violent component of that eroticism cannot be denied, and the “masks” seem to acknowledge the cultural debasement that has historically defined women.

A layered portrait emerges from Dumas’ work as a whole, as if from the ashes of cultural stereotyping. Her critique of fairy tales is particularly harsh. One of her larger oils, Snow White in the Wrong Story, places a naked woman inside a glass case. The painting recalls the Disney image of the passive beauty Snow White lying in a drugged sleep, waiting to be awakened, but this captive woman’s anguished face challenges the myth that women want to be passive.

In one of her most telling pieces, Dumas illustrates the premise upon which much of women’s position in art, myth, and culture has been based. In the oil Art-Stories Told by Toads, a toad is splayed, his soft underbelly exposed. Spewing from the bowels of the amphibian is a text in small letters: “Art is stories told by toads.” Dumas implies that the toad–the fairy-tale creature who can turn into a prince only if kissed by a fair maiden–is like the men who shape culture, the patriarchy. It’s implied that the creature is incomplete without women, and therefore vulnerable. Yet it is still the “toad,” the potential prince/ king, who constructs and perpetuates the narrative that defines art and culture. In this painting Dumas draws parallels between the power plays in fairy tales and the political realities of women who challenge patriarchal traditions in art.

It’s rare for a woman artist to take on the complexity of the sexuality foisted upon her by her culture. Dumas grants herself control over her own sexuality, refreshing us with a troubling, varied representation of women as they have come to know themselves.