Wandering through the Hirshorn Museum in Washington, D.C. some years ago, I trailed my companions a few paces, wandering off to peer at the details of one painting or another, losing time and striding back to reclaim lost distance every so often. Looking for something to strike a chord with my own aesthetic understanding.
And there it was on a far wall – a lovely, slightly dark and disconcerting rendition of a man. From afar, his figure appeared scratched into soapstone, a primitive, though detailed, version of a child’s drawing rendered negative. His head was as large and as round as his body, his face emitting a sheepish grin, his legs mere pegs, overshadowed by long, crab-like arms at sharp angles. Indeed, the title of the painting was Limbour As A Crustacean. My first Jean Dubuffet sighting.
What was the allure, you ask? It sounds a little bizarre.
It was bizarre, as has been every Jean Dubuffet painting or sculpture I have seen thereafter. And therein lies the allure, or at least as a short answer. Dubuffet’s subjects are mundane: men, mostly, sometimes city blocks or sometimes abstract amalgamations of faces and limbs. But when there are faces, they smile at you. Their bodies are contorted and nonsensical, bodies that no one would ever want to inhabit, but they smile at you, and you stand there feeling uncomfortable without any clear explanation. Dubuffet’s work is unsettling in the way that a ventriloquist dummy is unsettling, in the same way that a shelf of porcelain dolls gives you the creeps.
Dubuffet’s people are human, but not human enough for you to accept their universal signs of friendliness. We’re taught to not balk at ugliness, but we don’t cringe at Dubuffet’s figures because they’re ugly. Rather we cringe at them because they churn up an uncomfortable and unfamiliar combination of reactions. Charm, disgust and pity. Why are they smiling so earnestly? Do they not realize what absurd bodies they inhabit?
Or maybe the joke is on us. We see their demented forms and wonder what’s so funny, but I can’t help but feel that they might be smirking at our own twisted world.