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A Radical Artist Takes a Startling Turn Toward Love

A painting by Marlene Dumas of her pregnant daughter Helena — her belly wide and full, her hands raised at the elbow, her feet splayed — stood nearly 10 feet tall in the South African artist’s studio here two weeks ago.

It was the night before a few dozen of Ms. Dumas’s new paintings would be shipped to New York for her first solo exhibition there in eight years, and the artist was drinking white wine and still contemplating which works would ultimately end up in the show.

Several other monumental nudes, both male and female, were propped against the walls in two light-filled studio spaces, representing what she calls “strange, mixed-up figures, not quite human.” Interspersed among them were smaller oil paintings of bodily fragments: a lipstick-smeared mouth, a single breast and several renditions of two faces entwined in a kiss.

Ms. Dumas, 64, walked through the space, its floor littered with half-squeezed paint tubes and its tables topped with art history books, museum postcards and photocopied images. “They are, in a sense, individual works,” she said of the paintings, but they all have something to do with “attraction, sensuality and desires.”

This is Ms. Dumas’s newest body of work, “Myths & Mortals,” which just opened at David Zwirner’s West 20th Street gallery in Manhattan and is on view through June 30. Half of the 61 works were painted in the last three months, she said, while others were from 2016 and 2017. They start with a series of ink wash illustrations Ms. Dumas made to accompany a narrative Shakespeare poem, “Venus and Adonis,” which inspired her to explore issues of eroticism, but also power and violence. They led her to examine similar themes in a series of paintings.

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