Exhibition at First Street Gallery, 526 W. 26th Street, Room 209, NY, NY 10001
May 24 - June 18, 2016
Reception June 2, 2016: 6-8pm
Exhibition essay written by Peter Malone:
As most of us are now resigned to a perennially unsettled art world, we have evolved a near routine resilience to sudden changes in an artist’s direction. And yet changes can still be unnerving, especially for those who have followed an artist for a considerable period, only to find them one day a stranger. Presented with a new vision, members of an artist’s audience are likely to feel themselves compelled—one is tempted to say coerced—into intensifying their participation as an audience member.
Considering that for more than a decade Teresa Dunn’s work has consisted of complex figural compositions, it is understandable that her audience might feel a bit uneasy with this new work. At first glance it looks like a substantial change. But closer examination will reassure the skeptical that these paintings and studies represent modest re-considerations made well within Dunn’s familiar sensibility. They are a continuation of the other-worldly sense her work has always addressed, though adapted to an unpacking of her painterly process. It is as if the loose outlines beneath her earlier compositions are
now spreading like vines across a long established garden.
Dunn’s earlier pictures can be understood to some extent as related to the literary conceits of magic realism. “Doubling Back, 2014“, for instance, placed tourists, wreck survivors, elephants and fragments of ancient statuary on a beach, illuminated by a massive conflagration on the horizon precisely where a travel-brochure sunset belongs, while silhouettes of tourists and umbrellas, entirely out of scale with the other figures in the painting, sit calmly in the background. Dunn is quite upfront about how her, ”...narratives explore identity and relationships through the absurd. Animals, food, and objects are [just
as] important as humans by becoming symbolic, metaphorical or characters themselves. Peculiar reality becomes normal, as in dreams or memory.”
This normalizing of the absurd continues in the new work, though in a more abstracted and looser syntax. Faces emerge from dense brushwork. Hints of still life mix with what seems like foliage. As with her earlier work, the acceptance of uncanny events and appearances remains. It is the same acceptance that punctuates the narrative of Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Isabel Allende, for whom Dunn holds more than a passing familiarity, having read them in the original Spanish. These writers maintain their strangeness by holding to an atmosphere of vivid realism. It is what separates them from the Eurocentric and Freudian tone of Surrealism.
There is no subversion of reality in magic realism, only a stubborn naturalness, interrupted at times by a highly poetic irrationality. To the extent that the new paintings contain hints of recognizable yet incongruent imagery—still-life, figures, a visual flow that transitions in several directions at once—they are a continuation of the same dream structure, but rendered this time more susceptible to serendipity and surface pattern. Or to put it another way, Dunn’s new imagery is more in synch with the ebb and flow of actual painting.
Though the touch and painterly texture of Dunn’s method is relatively unchanged—a preference for small brushes working expansive fields remains intact—the formatting is noticeably different. Multiple panels are now employed, permitting her to expand on a composition in distinct stages, the continuity of the whole to be adjusted as each panel progresses. The cautionary space created by such compartmentalizing allows for more freedom of expression within each panel. Hence, the final composition is often a blending of several large ideas, occasionally surrendering parts of their outer imagery to the outer edges of their abutting sections, while maintaining enough individual integrity to hold their places as distinct parts of a coherent composition. As a metaphor in the service of dreaming while awake—the essence of magic realism—the partial unity it creates helps to reinforce simultaneous realities.
The second and rather obvious change is in the scale of the new work. “Slippage” is a five by ten foot triptych of three panels each measuring 60 x 40”. Even as sub-units of the whole, they are larger than the paintings Dunn exhibited in 2014. In fact, Slippage’s overall dimensions measure four times larger than any one of her earlier paintings. This increase in size indicates an expansion of the process itself. Dunn is transitioning her subject matter from ideas to events; from narratives paralleling spoken language to narratives that unfold through the act of painting and consequently through our visual reading of her painting process.
The smaller studies in the show act as guides along Dunn’s new path. As a member of a tiny minority of contemporary painters who have tackled the truly daunting genre of multiple figure composition, the fact that many of these studies are experiments with collage and the notoriously renegade technique of monotype is telling. Their spontaneity, more than any single aspect of the new work, speaks to a substantial ambition. Confident that she remains aligned intellectually and emotionally with her earlier work, Dunn is willing to let the painting process and the atmosphere of the studio itself become the
reality that in turn provides the context for her “...peculiar occurrences”. As the next step in her evolution, the work in this exhibition is not just logically motivated, it seems inevitable.