A FAMILY OF ARTISTS: William Dunlap, Linda Burgess and Maggie Dunlap
By Angela Rogalski, Hot Toddy: Experience The South, August 6, 2015
It's written that Vincent van Gogh said, "I dream my painting and I paint my dream." And his art was born. Artists before van Gogh and after him have put their dreams to the test and proven that there's nothing quite like turning those dreams into reality with a lot of hard work and talent.
Following in her parents' artistic footsteps, Maggie Dunlap studies visual and critical studies at the School of Visual Arts in New York City.
William Dunlap, his wife Linda Burgess and their daughter Maggie are three very talented individuals, without a doubt.
Dunlap has a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Mississippi; Burgess, a Master of Fine Arts in painting from Rutgers University and their daughter Maggie goes to college at the School of Visual Arts in New York City where she's studying Visual and Critical Studies. Suffice it to say, there's more than a dollop of creativity and mastery that makes up this family's DNA.
Dunlap's work has been on display in such renowned locations as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. He's a Mississippi native, Ole Miss Alum and a man who knows how to wield a brush and palette.
"I came back from Los Angeles and the so-called "Summer of Love" in late August 1967," Dunlap said. "At the urging of my selective service board I left the big R&B aggregation, Tim Whitsett and the Imperial Show Band, to begin the MFA program at Ole Miss. Far and away the best thing that had ever happened to me to that point in life.
William Dunlap's work has been on display in such renowned locations as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Here, he is pictured with one of his oil paintings.
"The art department occupied the first two floors of Bryant Hall and was right in the center of things in more ways than one. Terrific professors, two of whom I would teach with later at the University of North Carolina's Appalachian State campus, a new foundry, which I would run, to say nothing of the national political swirl and disruption of the late 60s, much of it occurring within a 100 mile radius of Oxford, Mississippi. One of the first people I met was the young Ed Meek who was running public relations and we became and have remained friends ever since."
"As is the case with so many Ole Miss Alumni I have been marked by the place, I came of age as an artist at Ole Miss and remain in touch with so many people who meant so much to me then; any excuse to come back is a good one."
Dunlap and his wife, Linda Burgess have lived a life of art and beauty for most of their married lives and their daughter Maggie grew up surrounded by the creative aura, but Dunlap said that neither of them pushed their only child in that direction.
"I got into the baby business rather late and as an only child Maggie has been wonderfully underfoot since birth," Dunlap said. "For her the most natural thing in the world is to see both parents get up in the morning, go to separate studios and make paintings, drawings, or write.
"It's only with the slightest bit of irony that I declare myself the third best artist in my family. Maggie could've done anything she wanted with her life; we certainly didn't push her in the direction of the visual arts, and I cannot remember ever giving her an "art lesson "as such, but she grew up going to galleries and museums and visiting other artist's studios and as it turns out had an excellent eye from the very beginning.
When working on a painting, it wasn't unusual for me to ask her to come in and take a look at it and tell me what she thought. This she did from the time she could barely stand. On long road trips, of which they were many, we would rig up a drawing table; a classic method for the only child to entertain herself. She is self-taught in many areas and especially as a draftsman, where she excels mightily."
Maggie, 19, agreed there was no pressure for her to follow in her parents' footsteps, but she was very happy to do it anyway.
"My parents never put any sort of pressure on me to be an artist, they only made themselves available if I asked for any sort of help or guidance," she said. "I feel very lucky to have grown up being surrounded by art and the art world. I don't think their work directly influenced mine, but watching them work definitely did. I learned how to be a professional artist by watching the way my parents did the same."
Her artistic abilities and inclinations showed up pretty early on in life and it seemed a natural progression for the little girl to just simply go-with-the-flow.
"I'm an only child, so I drew as a little kid to keep myself entertained. I was always artistically inclined, and it never occurred to me to "be" anything but an artist," she said. "I went to an art high school for my freshman year, but it wasn't the right fit for me and so I asked to be homeschooled. My parents were onboard, since they're artists that work from home. I was homeschooled for the rest of high school except for a semester-long program I attended in Northern California called The Oxbow School. Now I go to college at the School of Visual Arts studying Visual and Critical Studies."
Watching her growing up and seeing her artistic tendencies, Dunlap said that neither he nor his wife ever tried to advise her or instruct her in any way.
"Maggie's always felt comfortable in a variety of social situations. We were bad to bring her to cocktail and dinner parties without warning our host; if Maggie promised to wear her "adult hat" she could come," Dunlap said. "The only advice I ever gave her was to ask adults questions about themselves, they absolutely love that.
"I recall one incident, a ball game weekend in the Grove with Jan and Lawrence Farrington's family. Maggie must've been about three and she was going around saying Hotty Toddy and pulling her sundress up over her head. I overheard two elegant ladies seriously discussing whether this behavior was more Tri Delt or Chi O.
"As much as I would have loved for Maggie to attend Ole Miss, she had her heart set on New York from a very early age, and given that while at Appalachian State University I was instrumental in establishing a branch campus in Manhattan for the purpose of young artists to live and work in the most important arts center on the planet, it would've been more than a little hypocritical of me to have resisted.
"As for Maggie's own personal style it will be on view along with the work of her mother, Linda Burgess, at Southside Gallery this spring. Stay tuned."
And Maggie's style is something that is very distinguishable and in some cases, controversial. Maggie uses embroidery, needlepoint, and female undergarments such as slips and underwear, as canvasses for her work to create art that not only empowers women, but strives to take away the stigma from things that some people consider taboo, even today.
"I was originally drawn to fabric work such as embroidery and needlepoint because of its tactile nature," Maggie said. "After I started working with these mediums, I learned more about their history and intersection with women's history."
Maggie did a piece called Jungfrukällan, which is the original Swedish title for Ingmar Bergman's film The Virgin Spring. The movie is set in medieval Sweden and is the story of a father's unforgiving response to the rape and murder of his young daughter.
"That piece took about a month to create and the statement I wrote to accompany it took about the same amount of time to write," she said. "Activities like sewing are very repetitive and almost act as a sort of meditation, so it's very calming and rewarding work for me to do."
Maggie's work always opens up a conversation for more dialogue about the topic, something that pleases her greatly, especially if that conversation surrounds subject matter that is oftentimes "off limits" for whatever reason and stifles the female response in any way, either pro or con, such as when she uses the naturalness of the female body to bullseye a point in her work.
"Imagery referring to menstruation in my work isn't necessarily literally speaking about menstruation. I think of that imagery as a visual representation of the transitional time in a girl's life when she realizes her body is not her own," Maggie said. "But it is equally as important to reinforce the fact that periods and vaginas don't equal womanhood. Not all women have periods and in that way, it is important that my art doesn't focus too much on menstruation."
William Dunlap is very proud of his daughter's ability to stay true to her art and her ethic to keep mastering it no matter what.
"Talk is cheap in the art world and there's way too much of it as there is," Dunlap said. "As far as advice is concerned, the best and most profound I ever received was from a high school football coach, Jack Taylor, who often implored me to, "keep your head down and your feet moving." He certainly had one thing in mind and I another. Maggie knows intuitively that connections, good fortune, family name, degrees and talent are worth very little if one does not do the work. That's why we discus Caravaggio, Tintoretto, Rembrandt, Rubens, Mr. Faulkner and Miss Welty today; they did the work."
Maggie Dunlap's first solo show opens in Miami at & gallery on October 3, 2015.
The Art Ambassador
Garden & Gun
Julia Reed, 2010
William Dunlap is bold, outspoken, and not afraid to have a good time.
On January 20, 2005, the date of George W. Bush's second inaugural, I spent the day in our nation's capital in the unlikely company of my friend the artist William Dunlap, who lives in nearby McLean, Virginia, for half the year. I knew Dunlap had not cast his vote for Bush—to this day he persists in sharing his irritating opinion that Al Gore was a bad candidate who would have made a good president. But he is a Southerner, with a Southerner's sense of history, and he is capable of rising, with great style, to almost any occasion. So it was that immediately after the swearing-in, we made our way to the balconied Pennsylvania Avenue apartment of the late conservative columnist Robert Novak to watch the parade. As soon as we hit the door, Dunlap spotted a tall brunette who was very good-looking—but also sporting an insanely unflattering hairdo of sparsely spaced, gel-induced spikes. Before I knew what was happening, Bill had marched straight up to her: "Baby, who did that to you? Tell me right now so I can whip his ass."
I held my breath—I knew this woman, and she's pretty formidable. Also, her husband was within earshot. But I should have known better. Within minutes, she was utterly charmed and they were the best of pals, laughing and talking about art and shared friends in the Virginia hunt country. Before it was over, she'd enlisted his help with a fund-raiser, and I'd swear he sold her a painting.
I have told this story many times because everything about that day tells you a lot about Dunlap. He's an unreconstructed lefty but would not dream of missing something as significant as a Presidential inaugural or as potentially fun as a parade-watching party because of something as trivial as politics. He can charm unlikely women and disarm angry cops in riot gear with equal aplomb. This was the first inaugural after 9/11, after all, but Dunlap managed to fast-talk us past the endless barricades my press pass was powerless to get us through. Then there was the lunch he'd hosted the day before at the Cosmos Club, where his guests included Mississippi Republican Senator Thad Cochran and Marsha Barbour, the wife of the Republican governor.
But that's the thing about Dunlap. He's an extraordinary painter, but he's also a fully engaged citizen of the world. When I remark on that, he shoots back, "Well, thank you, but isn't that why we're here?" adding that in any case, the "difficult, more precious" approach to his craft has never held much interest. "I want to live a good, interesting, compelling life and not suffer. I think artists and writers are cast in this role. It's a post-Christian thing—Jesus died for our sins and so must James Joyce. That may be why I don't have a lot of artist friends. They whine and complain. I have to lecture them. I say, 'Listen, our job as artists is to have more fun than anyone else.'"
Throughout his life, he's always managed to excel at that. But fun has always been entwined with the pursuit of his art. Between college and grad school in his native Mississippi, he toured the country with a rhythm and blues band, playing drums, but also soaking up the contents of the museums in each city. While teaching at Appalachian State University in the 1970s, he convinced the dean to let him start a branch campus in New York, and he and his students commuted to an enormous loft he rented in Tribeca. In 1995, he won a Wallace Grant and traveled and painted in Southeast Asia for six months. Ten years later he returned to Thailand with his wife, Linda Burgess, and their fourteen-year-old daughter, Maggie (both of whom are artists), for a month-long painting holiday, and last fall the trio spent a month as visiting artists at the American Academy in Rome.
He has produced work that resides in the collections of institutions ranging from the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan to the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson and the William Morris Museum in Augusta, Georgia. But he has spent at least as much time serving as a roving ambassador of sorts, employing his famous charm and seemingly tireless energy to promote Southern art and culture from a variety of platforms including the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans, where he serves on the board of directors, and the Governor's Awards for Excellence in the Arts ceremony, which he emcees every year in Jackson. And while he excels at his official posts (he has elevated the Governor's Awards to such a level of buzz and importance, you'd think it was Oscar night), his cheerleading goes well beyond any official duties.
"Bill's generosity in supporting Southern artists of all shapes and forms is beyond measure," says William Ferris, the folklorist and former National Endowment of the Humanities chair who now teaches at the University of North Carolina. Generosity is indeed a consistent theme. "Bill is a constant source of inspiration and encouragement to younger artists," says David Houston, the chief curator and co-director of the Ogden. "He wants to bring the next generation along with his success."
One member of that generation is Phillip McGuire, an artist who began his career as Dunlap's assistant. "I realize now that Bill often took me along to meetings or art events where my presence was not really required," he tells me. "I encountered writers, artists, and other cultural forces that I would never have had the opportunity to meet. I learned a lot from Bill. He affirmed that drawing is the underlying foundation of visual art, for example. Not least though is that he taught me how to be big-hearted, to freely give more than I'm asked."
Among Dunlap's closest friends is John Alexander, the artist originally from Beaumont, Texas, who now lives in New York. "The key to understanding Dunlap is realizing that what he does is not about self-promotion," Alexander says. "He does it out of an enormous generosity of spirit. It's real—and it's not new."Alexander points to one of their early experiences together, the Southern Rim Conference that Dunlap organized at Appalachian State in 1976, just after Jimmy Carter's election. Taking as his rough model the Black Mountain Conference, which had included young artists of the 1950s (Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage) who later became superstars, Dunlap invited Southern artists, writers, and musicians to a four-day retreat in the Blue Ridge Mountains. "Southern art at that time was just beginning to get outside recognition," Alexander says, "and Dunlap believed it would be in everybody's best interest to bring all of us together so that we could share ideas and common goals."
In addition to Alexander, the attendees included artists James Surls, Jim Roche, and Ed McGowin, photographers William Eggleston and William Christenberry, and songwriter and artist Terry Allen—all of whom went on to become influential figures. But Dunlap's particular genius was to include curators and museum directors and critics from outside the region as well. "He wanted to give them some understanding of what we do," Alexander says. "It's very difficult to explain why what we do is different—it's almost like a mojo thing. The one thing we could impress upon them is our history of storytelling. It translates into pathos and a strong sense of narrative that comes out in all our work—and certainly in Dunlap's. And they all got it. It is no exaggeration to say that everybody's career took off after that. Marcia Tucker [then the curator of painting and sculpture at the Whitney Museum] gave Jim Roche a show, Surls had a show at the Guggenheim. Jane Livingston totally got it." Livingston, then curator at D.C.'s Corcoran Gallery, would go on to commission one of Dunlap's most significant works. But connections were by no means the only byproduct of the conference. "There had been an 'us against the world' mentality," Alexander says. "And we left with a real sense of optimism. It was a huge deal."
Not only does Dunlap continue to promote artists of the South in the wider world, he also promotes institutions within the region. He recently curated a critically acclaimed show of Civil War artifacts at the Ogden with his friend the Civil War historian and novelist Winston Groom, and he was instrumental in landing a huge plum for the museum in the form of Sally Mann's recent show of photographs.
"I'm just trying to support the visual arts in a place where they've been fallow," Dunlap tells me. "I'd like to think that the life I'm having, the career I'm having—other folks can have it too."
The current world of engaged artists and enterprising museums was not the South in which Dunlap arrived. He was born in Webster County, Mississippi, to a schoolteacher mother and a father who died when he was three. His stepfather was a peripatetic Baptist preacher who moved the family all across the Deep South before returning to Mississippi when Dunlap was in high school, but he and his brother spent every summer with their grandparents in the small town of Mathiston. The family house, called Starnes House, is featured in some of Dunlap's best-known paintings, as are the purebred Walker hounds his foxhunting grandfather raised. In the work, they become stand-ins for people, including the artist himself, and he still remembers their names: Lucky, Mary, Speck, Sally, and Bo. "Those dogs were all legs, lung, nose, and heart," he says. "They lived to run."
After graduating from Mississippi College, Dunlap joined the Imperial Show Band, a stage band composed of white musicians and a black lead singer. In the first of many long road trips that still define Dunlap's life and art, he traveled with the band across the country on Route 66, settling for a while in L.A., where he saw his first real art museum. "There was a great Jackson Pollock retrospective at the L.A. County Museum of Art, and seeing it was so different than seeing art on slides, which is pretty much all I'd ever seen in school. Until then, I had no sympathy with the whole action painting thing at all. I'd been trying to paint and draw like the Hudson River School as well as I could. But standing in front of a real Jackson Pollock, when it's a huge field and fills your eye, I got it."
His musical career ended when "the draft board got after my ass in a big way." He headed home and "slid into" grad school at Ole Miss in the nick of time, and spent the next two years earning a Master of Fine Arts in printmaking and sculpture and running the campus foundry. It wasn't until he was engaged in his subsequent teaching career in the 1970s, first at a junior college in Mississippi and then at Appalachian State, that he taught himself to paint. Astonishingly, he'd taken only formal classes in watercolor. One of his earliest works speaks to the process: a three-part Rembrandt portrait called Learn to Paint Like a Master in Three Easy Steps. The painting, he says, "dealt with the irony of being a twenty-seven-year-old kid just out of graduate school, suddenly finding himself a college professor. How absurd was that?"
At Appalachian State, in addition to the Southern Rim Conference, he exposed his students to speakers ranging from Tom Wolfe to James Dickey. And he introduced his friend Jane Livingston to more diverse aspects of Southern art. "Jane became the godmother of black folk art in America," John Alexander says. "She put so many artists on the map, but it was Dunlap who exposed her to most of them. We had some of the great road trips of our lives, going to all these remote places to look at that stuff."
The road increasingly became Dunlap's second home. In North Carolina, he lived on the edge of the Blue Ridge Parkway and constantly traveled back and forth between North Carolina and Mississippi and New York and Washington. In his paintings he captured the vistas from his windshield. "The landscapes that emerged offer a subtext of tension, of loneliness, of expectancy," the writer Mary Lynn Kotz said at the time. "Faulkner's themes are repeated by Dunlap—the land abides, surviving all of man's attempts to cordon it off with boundary lines."
Some of his best paintings from this period were exhibited in a show titled Off the Interstate, and one critic described him as the "chronicler of the Interstate Generation," a description he doesn't mind. "A lot of art comes from the side of the road," he says.
The paintings reached their apogee in 1985 when Jane Livingston asked him to create a work for the classical rotunda of the Corcoran. His response was a contemporary cyclorama based on the cinematic Civil War battle panoramas he'd seen as a child. Called Panorama of the American Landscape, it is made up of fourteen canvases, each of which measures 68 by 94 feet, that encircle the viewer. "I made it about driving up Interstate 81, about that whole valley in Virginia and its history." There are images of encroaching industrialization in the form of a cooling tower and factory, a Civil War statue at Antietam, dogs, of course, and deer heads, which are among the most powerful images in the piece. "The dogs are the hunters, and the deer heads are the hunted," he says, explaining that he'd been on the first real hunting trip of his life just before he started the project, and shot a buck. He and his party roasted the backstraps, but the deer did more than feed them for the night. "When I got back, I found a sketch I'd made of three deer heads along with some drawings of Antietam, and I thought, 'There it is.' You've got the deer on one side, you gotta have the dogs on the other, and the whole thing just came together." For six months he didn't do anything but paint. "I had no social life," he says. "But it was the most fun I've ever had in a studio."
"Dunlap was ahead of the curve in making paintings that address history and place, often through multilayered images that engage the imagination of the viewer," says David Houston. "It's a strategy that is much like Dunlap himself—open, democratic, and participatory. It also encourages a dialogue that grows richer over time."
The dialogue is especially encouraged in what Dunlap calls "those trippy things I do": hybrids of paintings and sculpture that incorporate the found objects that fascinate him. Philip McGuire says that on his first day at work he was dispatched to the yard with a large Mason jar and instructions to fill it with the dried husks of locusts clinging to a giant oak. "For years they perched on a shelf in his studio in McLean like a jar of macabre preserves," McGuire recalls. "Eventually they ended up in one of his assemblages."
So do a lot of other things. "In one there's a piece of linoleum that came out of my grandmother's kitchen—that's my version of Vitruvian Man," Dunlap says. "All that stuff is charged in some way. I'm just trying to jog people's memories."
His own memory was jogged several years ago when he bought Starnes House to keep it from being bulldozed to make way for a Piggly Wiggly. He then moved an old Church of Christ onto the property to use as a studio. He probably spends ten days a year there, but the ground is literally fertile with inspiration. Among the first things he found in the dirt was a decaying leather dog collar with a brass nameplate bearing his grandfather's name and five-digit phone number. Later, it showed up in an exhibition called Objects: Found and Fashioned—a show whose works also embody what William Ferris calls the artist's "appreciation for the funky underbelly of the South, for worlds that both frighten and attract the uninitiated."
Even with the more straight-ahead paintings, Dunlap sees himself as a symbolist—he's even coined a term for his work of late, "hypothetical realism." Though he first meant it tongue in cheek, "it is nevertheless fairly accurate," he says. "These places I paint are not necessarily real, but they could be. It's kind of like language in that everything stands in for something else. The dogs stand in for people, the places are generic but they're specific. At a show in Boston, I heard someone say, 'Oh, those are the White Mountains of New Hampshire.' They were the Southern Appalachians, but it didn't matter. He'd filled in the blanks."
A painting he made for the chef Donald Link's private dining restaurant, Calcasieu, is set in southwest Louisiana where Link's family has a hunting camp, but he took a lot of liberties with the landscape. "You can't stand anywhere on that property and see everything that's in the painting. It's really about the day." He and Link drove from New Orleans to meet Link's extended family. "They out-ate me, out-drank me, and there were all these dogs and children running around. And I saw one of the most powerful places on the planet through the eyes of a guy who grew up there. I don't want to dis another part of the world, but I can't imagine doing something like that in Ohio or Nevada or Utah."
He did a similar commission for Eli Manning, who asked him to create a work incorporating a store near Philadelphia, Mississippi, that's been in his mother's family for generations. "I went and looked at it, and I visited with the family about it. I told Eli I couldn't make the painting that was in his head, the painting of that exact place, but I could make it about the place. It's all there—the storefront, the dogs running across the road—but I moved things around. It's an implied narrative, and everybody else brings things to it."
Last we talked, Dunlap was about to take one of his extended driving trips through the Delta, but despite his affinity for his home state, he doubts he'll ever settle there. When he and his family are not in McLean, they are in Coral Gables, Florida, where Linda's family lives. He says he likes the dual existence—and the distance from "home"—just fine.
"I love coming back. I want people from my gene pool, from my world, to see what I'm doing. That means more to me than you might think." So does the debt he feels he owes to the place. "I don't want to be bound by regionalism, I want it to be a launching pad," he tells me. "The world is kind of wide open to me, and I've lived in it, and there's something about growing up in the American South that has made that possible. You come out equipped with manners, and you know how to have a conversation."
Fortunately for all of us, home and "home folks" are his favorite topics. Says Ferris: "In Faulkner's Nobel Prize acceptance speech, when he speculates that at the end of time we'll hear man's 'puny inexhaustible voice, still talking,' I'm pretty sure he had in mind the voice of Dunlap, still talking about the American South and her artists."
Bill Dunlap: Indigenous, Inspired, In Trouble on the Cover
by R. T. Smith, Shenandoah/Washington & Lee University Review, Vol. 57, No. 2, Spring 2008
No matter how much anyone wants to hear about it, I'm not going to discuss the night in Bill Dunlap's Memphis studio when we started shooting at a panoramic photo-collage of Mississippi hogs with a blowgun presented to Bill by Jim Dickey. Neither am I going to explain how we matriculated from a fried shrimp dive to a barbecue emporium and thence to the roof of a tall and gutted building where we were more vulnerable to both vertigo and the pelting rain than we had been on the neon-reflecting streets below, because if such a narrative is to unfold someday, it should be conveyed with troubling juxtapositions, high and low wit and rattling implications on rag paper or canvas with oils and the other materials that have served Mississippi's grand chronicler, raconteur and art crusader Br'er Dunlap so well over the last three or four decades.
Bill was born in Houston, Mississippi in 1944, and so far as I can tell, he's been reborn every day since. As he puts it, "I generally wake up of a morning thinking myself a painter and spend the balance of the day in my studio trying to prove it." He's been conjuring and executing his work in his native Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee, northern Virginia and Florida at a blistering pace ever since, and I've succumbed to the evidence so long ago that anyone currently seeking an objective or restrained perspective on this matter need read no further.
Bill's southern roots have provided his primary subject, though he's branched out, as our cover suggests to blend the local and the global, the historical and the personal, the ironic and the romantic. If, as William Faulkner said, the past is not past, then the dead are not dead and the future is not only before us but with us. All of which I believe, else "grits ain't groceries, eggs ain't poultry and the Mona Lisa is a man," as Titus Turner wrote it, Little Milton sang it and Bill would surely know it. In Dunlap's paintings his own ancestors, Rembrandt, long-buried dogs, collapsed barns, fence lines, wild flora and fauna and a host of iconic artifacts take on a new life and speak to us. I don't mean just me. His work has appeared in Harper's, Esquire, Ontario Review, Vanity Fair, The Washington Post, arty magazines, dozens of museums, universities and galleries and on three previous covers of Shenandoah. Why? Because it is beautiful, witty, accessible, hungry, curious, ironic, beguiling, surprising and a little bit twisted. Because he summons so many beloved images, then subverts and scrambles them with counter-images and says Behold in a way that delights and threatens at the same time. "Hypothetical realism" he calls it in his high-octane honeyed bourbon voice. Inviting viewers to enjoy — as well as watch, wait, listen and think — he boldly approaches the comforting lure of nostalgia but swerves, winks and reminds viewers of the snelled hooks such delicious lures conceal. His beautiful Mississippi of the past, the old Shenandoah Valley and ridge farms of the Blue Ridge are all at once spellbinding and imbued with an awareness Flannery O'Connor expresses in Wise Blood:
Where you come from is gone; where you thought you were going to never was there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it.
But he also knows that the opposite is most likely equally true. And yet, he joyfully engages with both change and the resistance to it and is, in addition to being a disciplined and rigorous artist, an activist, archivist and grand panjandrum mischiefist who both celebrates and subverts the ceremonies and failures of his region, his country and his species (not limited to his fellow expatriates from the planet Mississippi). He can be found on panels, TV shows, openings, installations, classrooms, pig pickings and turkey shoots pushing art, praising art, interrogating art, all with a generosity of spirit Julia Reed calls "benevolent meddling." His tactics are, of course, representation, but also reflection, refraction and deflection, all manner of distortion and a brand of yarning that is, for all its magpie gatheration, still pretty distinctly his own. His motifs include Rembrandt portraits, battlefields, wild animals (living and dead), arrows, farmsteads with fences, hounds (sad, sly, soulful or scolded), fish (as in "my mother is a"), water (coming, going or staying) delectable irises and other flora, vast landscapes and skyscapes — all charged and charmed by context and ingenious rendering. And colors? His purples are from Tyre, his blues from Robert Johnson, his yellows from Kashmiri saffron, and his browns, roans, buffs and ochers are out of the rich and riddling earth, his reds aortal and pomegranate and barnfire. And for all the beauty of his palette, he is threatening. Things and places (he is a priest of place) are vulnerable and under dangerous scrutiny, and we love them at our peril. Relics of the dead and sites of slaughter appear in juxtaposition to the most lulling viewsheds, and images of St. Sebastian and skulls crop up at the most inconvenient times. Ghosts wander about and beckon, but they do not simply disperse when we try to reason with them. Reversing the Hamlet practice, they interrogate us. As Barry Hannah has written, "Dunlap . . . put the hard-edge to the spooky and ineffable."
And his canvases are big, and bigger. There's an old back-yonder Delta tale about a marvelous, much-mourned dog. Seems a prideful countryman named Ratliff had only to step out on the porch holding up a plank the size of the raccoon whose meat he'd like in his kettle and skin he'd like stretched on the wall of his shed. Ratliff's faithful hound Buster would take one look at the displayed plank and rush off, returning directly with a coon to fit the order. Unfortunately, one day Mr. Ratliff (or maybe it was Snopes or Gupton) had occasion to remove a broken door from its hinges, and he hauled it out onto the porch, where he was observed by a somewhat abashed Buster. The dog canted his head, sighed, whimpered and loped off toward the woods. Night fell, sun rose, stars again — no dog. Buster was never seen again. Dunlap, however, starts with the door-sized canvas (or paper, which he often paints, drops, smears and scumbles on) and expands from there. At least, that's how I think he might make this point about scale and, maybe, ambition.
Early on, still hovering near the homeplace, Wild Bill demonstrated that he could offer up his own convincing version of the soul-razoring gaze of a Rembrandt self-portrait, rendering it with creepy accuracy, while interrogating product, process and the Master who produced it by hounding it or locating it at the center of a family reunion. He also painted his own family and environs with both deep fondness and a dead-serious irony, even then asking viewers to consider the cost of what we have and what we must lose in order to keep what we can't bear to surrender. His 93 ½" long "Three Deer Head for Antietam" from 1982 presents a modern-day view of the battlefield site in winter, the upper two feet of the oil going from purple storm sky to burned butter to the thin rim of mountains, then hills, trees, nestled homes with one lonely martial monument, the whole vast marvel protecting both civilization and the profusion of the glorious from the foreground by only a frail fence, half toppled by the weight of snow (via Joann at http://www.dresshead.com). What that foreground, the near hill, reveals are the disembodied heads of a trio of multi-branched mule bucks, their muzzles pointing toward the enticing viewshed, their severed necks showing gruesome meat and cartilage pointed right at the spectator. But you can't just spectate, because these three sacrificed creatures with their thorny racks say, among other things, "Golgotha" and "suffering" and "cost." And they ain't whispering.
In 1984 when he painted one manifestation of his trademark horizontal intoxicating landscape with bristling, Luminist Revival light, stark trees, isolated farmstead in snow, migrating birds in the distance and misbehaving hunting dogs in the foreground, he called it "Agrarian Industrial Complex" and added a nuclear power plant emitting its gorgeous murderous smoke. No wonder the birds are leaving; no wonder three of the four dogs are looking out into the gallery to ask, "What do we do now?" while the fourth dog seeks a place to disappear.
Do now? Bill always seems to know, at least in some provisional way. He knows the bridge to take to the next thing, in various idioms, including conversation. I recollect one night when I was visiting him at his McLean studio, and we had sat up too late for safety naming the beasts of the forest and discussing how Miles Davis's "Sketches of Spain" altered our auditory and visual imaginations forever. Though I've been a jackleg drummer off and on throughout my love affair with music, Bill was once the percussionist for Bill Whitsett's Imperial Show Band and earned actual federal money at it. Seeing my experience, through no fault of his, as decidedly small change, I changed lanes and mentioned that I had some fine tomatoes in my garden, to which he replied that we should go to bed before the sun caught us, and we could greet the day joyously over some cathead biscuits and tomato gravy conjured from Mama Dunlap's finest breakfast recipe. He was right about the need to sleep, and right about the biscuits slathered in gravy the hue of rosy-fingered dawn.
But sleep doesn't seem to be one of his highest priorities, as Bill appears to be on the road or in the studio more hours per day than Timex puts on watches . It's hard, looking at the proliferation of his oeuvre, not to think of the 18th century portraitist and polymath William Dunlap, who knew everything about the conventions of theater and not a little about paint. Though Willie Boy is more influenced by Church, Heade, Hopper, W. Homer, Rauschenberg, Wyeth and a heap of others than by the earlier Wm. (Roy Blount, Jr. says he "is to dog-trot what Cezanne was to the orange"), he knows as well as that long-gone W.D. that art is an event and life, as they used to say down at the Hollow Log Lounge, is an emergency.
An observer and commentator equally at home with Have Mercy in Darlington, S.C. and having coffee with maestro Gore Vidal on his piazza in Ravello, Dunlap is indeed "regional," but not in the sense of gossip or local wines that won't travel so much as in the sense of Islay scotch or scripture that are so specific as to be essential and must be allowed to stray where they may and will find advocates wherever they arrive and pause. Although a few titles of his paintings won't make you cock your ears or raise your hackles — say "Objects Found and Fashioned," "Landscape and Variable," "Birds of a Feather," "Mississippi Painting" — others say "enter at your own risk": "Vitruvian Bear," "Three Deer Head for Antietam," "Rose Red Root Rut Run," "He'll Set Your Fields Afire," "Delta Dog Trot, Landscape Askew"; "Rembrandt and Spook, Narcissus Reflects on the Starnes House as Audubon's Osprey Flies Away." How can anybody resist thinking, "I'd like to have a chance to look at those"?
ONE DAY THE mailman brought me a cardboard tube of the sort posters are shipped in, but I could hear something rattling inside as I tipped it, and the return address let me know it would be some sort of art. Inside, I found a hand-made arrow — fletched, nocked, paint-banded and chert-tipped with a hide strip lashing the point. "What on earth?" Today I might think some terrorist had turned strange, but then I just thought: "We'll see." The next paintings I saw by Bill featured various versions of an arrow-riddled corpse. Some would think of the body Costner/Dunbar and his mule driver in "Dances with Wolves" find on the prairie, as the teamster says somebody back home's wondering, "Why don't he write?" Others will envision Saint Sebastian, and a few (I wasn't one yet) might say something akin to, "Aha, Sergeant Wylliams, a photo-documented casualty of manifest destiny's miscalculations." Bill means "all of the above," and some version of that sad human pincushion appears in works like "Willing Spirit, Weak Flesh," "Meditations on the Origins of Agriculture in America," "Deer Hide Willow Seek," "Indian Paint Brush" and others. Bill has written that the picture of the dead soldier remains "the most indelible image" for him, and as I perused these paintings and constructions, all the while that little "look out!" voice in my head was saying "and blowgun darts, too."
Percussionist and projectile, evangelist (his step-daddy was called) and shill, pilgrim and curator — Dunlap believes in full immersion in both illusion and indelible, undeniable fact, and among the great messages in his work are that still life is not nature mort so much as a haunted pause in the wrestling match between refreshment and decay, that the South (with its high theater, low cunning and Christ-hauntedness) is a beautiful, dangerous place to live out the human experiment, that "good hand, good eye" is not enough or beside the point: technique is the mule, not the freight (but it is the mule!). And those dogs who seem to be looking for something (perhaps an earlier cannier race of master/comrades than we have proved to be) won't let me forget Bill's humor, which can be deft or sledge-hammer, as he's not only witty in a traveled, astute and cunning way, but also hunker-down, knee-slap funny, full of puns — visual and verbal — exaggerations, wild associations and the sense that "anachronism" is just another way to say "anything goes."
IN THE NEWER paintings ("Bull Barn Storm" and "What Boys Paint") Dunlap revives and levitates some vintage warplanes to fly over Americana, then conducts both obsolete and state-of-the-art martial paraphernalia, complete with infantrymen, in a symphonic conflagration in which more goes on than barnstorming: explosions bloom in demonic shapes, a palm-studded country suffers and anonymous foot soldiers puzzle over gigantic saurian rough beasts slouching across the desert. Are these Iraqi crocs or our own Everglades gators, drafted for some new surge strategy? Maybe it doesn't matter. In this painting not quite so long as a coffin, we feel shadows of the military cycloramas of Atlanta and Gettysburg (and the Depression mural revival) Dunlap has long admired and studied. This much we know: SOMEBODY is bringing the recent history of western military prowess to bear, with extreme prejudice, on a city and its surround. Spectators get to see the destruction from a protected distance, and the blood is hidden from us, but we know what colors these "boys" paint in, and who supplies the pigment by pints and gouts. Even the birds we have savored in previous Dunlap "productions" (the narrative is often so John-Ford cinematic that the word seems apt) signal that this crucible is, at best, a place to be from. Given the content of the daily news, his imagery here is hardly prophetic, but it is a grande pathetique, bringing some of the horror home, just in case anyone has forgotten the early months when vengeful might seemed to some enthusiasts beautiful in a para-testeronic way. Those gung-ho's probably won't like the ways he's suggested their Great Adventure is, at best, opera buffo, but from the start "Shock and Awe" is a phrase born to describe a disaster, no matter how much glamour is mustered.
BROTHER DAVE GARDNER observed, upon seeing one of those road construction signs warning BE PREPARED TO STOP: If you wasn't prepared to stop, dear hearts, you ought not to of started out. So I'm going to have to hit the brakes myself, though readers needn't. What we offer in our portfolio is but a smattering of the blessed madness, but I want everyone to know that there's more, much more. You can find it on www.williamdunlap.com
Born in 1944 in Mississippi, William R. Dunlap has distinguished himself as an artist, arts commentator and educator, during a career that has spanned more than three decades.
His paintings, sculpture and constructions are included in prestigious collections, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Lauren Rogers Museum, Mobil Corporation, Riggs Bank, IBM Corporation, Federal Express, The Equitable Collection, Rogers Ogden Collection, Arkansas Art Center, the United States State Department, and United States Embassies throughout the world.
He has had solo exhibitions at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, National Academy of Science, Aspen Museum of Art, Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, Museum of Western Virginia, Albany Museum of Art, Cheekwood Fine Arts Center, Mint Museum of Art, Mississippi Museum of Art, Contemporary Art Center in New Orleans, to name but a few. Panorama of the American Landscape, his fourteen panel, 112 feet long cyclorama painting depicting a contemporary view of the Shenandoah Valley in summer and the Antietam battlefield in winter, was commissioned for the Rotunda Gallery at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1985, but since its debut has been shown in nearly a dozen American museums and art centers, its most recent venue being the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, VA. In addition, Reconstructed Recollections and In the Spirit of the Land are also exhibitions of Mr. Dunlap's work that continue major tours.
A Winding River: Contemporary Painting from Vietnam, an exhibition he co-curated, opened at the Meridian International Center in Washington, DC during the 1997-98 season and traveled to several American museums. He also co-curated a counterpoint to that project: Outward Bound: American Art on the Brink of the 21st Century which opened at the Meridian International Center as well and is traveling throughout Southeast Asia. Currently, he is working on another exhibition to open at the Meridian International Center, that of contemporary Cuban painting.
Honored in his field, Mr. Dunlap has received awards and fellowships from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Lila Wallace/Reader's Digest Foundation for study and travel in Southeast Asia, Warhol Foundation, Virginia Commission for the Arts, Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters, Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art/RJR Nabisco Visual Artists Award, and the Mississippi Governor's Award for Excellence in the Arts.
He is an inspired speaker and has lectured on art related subjects at colleges, universities, institutions and professional conferences. He has served as arts commentator on WETA-TV's cultural round table show, "Around Town" since 1988.
William Dunlap has an M.F.A. from the University of Mississippi, and taught at Appalachian State University in North Carolina (1970-79) and Memphis State University (1979-80.) He currently maintains studios in McLean, Virginia; Mathiston, Mississippi and Coral Gables, Florida.
Copyright 2003 William Dunlap. All rights reserved.
1969 MFA University of Mississippi, Universitypublic collections
1966 BS Mississippi College, Clinton
Albany Museum of Art, GA
Arkansas Art Center, Little Rock
Cheekwood Botanical Garden & Museum of Art, Nashville, TN
Contemporary Art Center, New Orleans, LA
Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington DC
Lauren Rogers Museum of Art, MS
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
Mint Museum of Art, Charlotte, NC
Mississippi Museum of Art, Jackson
National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
In the galleries: Rustic landscapes with just a touch of menace
by Mark Jenkins
With its meticulous landscapes and neoclassical aesthetic, William Dunlap's show at the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center could have been edited to make the painter appear to be a traditionalist. "Look at It — Think About It" puts homages to Rembrandt alongside pastoral scenes that are dark and solemn enough for a 19th-century gentleman's club. Yet the style Dunlap calls "hypothetical realism" also has a puckish streak.
Thus the show includes "Art Bomb," a paint box tricked up with a timer and clay that resembles plastic explosive. Collage-paintings tweak other tools of the artist's trade, while multi-piece paintings-assemblages recall Robert Rauschenberg's and Larry Rivers's visual commentaries on art and history. The critical thinking continues in "Short Mean Stories," a new book drawn from decades of Dunlap's journals and sketchbooks.
The Mississippi-bred Dunlap maintains studios in his home state, Florida and Northern Virginia. His Southern heritage is reflected in tastes for rolling hills and hunting dogs, and depictions of everyday rustic violence: a fish with its head cut off, dogs with the remains of a deer carcass. There also are Civil War uniforms, rendered precisely but with a few painterly drips, and a KKK-like hood with bloodlike red streaks. If Dunlap's hypothetical vistas seem to portray a lost utopia, it's one that's far from a peaceable kingdom.
Brand Loyalty: Union Blue and Butternut, 2016
diptych, polymer paint on canvas
48 x 72"
Narrative is tricky business. Yet the telling of universal stories through art can bind us together and bring new, enhanced areas of self-understanding. William Dunlap's assemblages of elements taken from his life, our lives, and the world around us reflect his sensuous and infectiously energetic view of life. He shares his feelings with us openly, dangerously and naively, perhaps.
Nostalgia in our speeding world is tough to sell. Our culture today seems about what is new and changing. Agents of change discard history to facilitate their rush to the future, dumping all "baggage." Dunlap wants to slow that process, loading back the rich artifacts of history, reminding us of roots, culture, traditions. He romances, in his careful artistic waltz, the past into the present. His pause allows a more humane position, an enviable one when seen by the harried and hustled, perhaps.
Nomenclatures (art and language, form and content, image and icon) are Dunlap's specialties. His paintings, watercolors, assemblages, sculptural oddities and artifacts are refined by a broad art historical awareness and a time and effort to suffer about what we have lost, perhaps.
Deputy Director/Chief Curator
Corcoran Gallery of Art