"You'll notice there aren't a lot of people in my work," says Bill Dunlap, a native Mississippian with a thick accent that belies his speed racer-style of talking. "The animals are personifications of human beings," Dunlap continues, his drawl trailing off at 100 miles an hour, "like hunting dogs ... I grew up with Walker hounds. I got an oral history from the guys I grew up with in pickup trucks ... we called it a race not a hunt, we'd go fox hunting at night when the foxes were naturally out." We see these dogs appear in pieces like Dunlap's "Landscape and Variable," created with polymer paint, ink, dry pigment, and gold leaf on rag paper. There are five hounds in the foreground, striking various poses; behind them are three men in red jackets who appear to be riding invisible horses. Beyond the men is a house on a hill, reminiscent of Monticello, and to the far back left is a factory or plant of some kind, smoke billowing into the blood red sky. At the bottom of the piece, a fading word in all caps begins to form, or recede, we cannot tell: DEMOCRACY.
When asked whether his work has any overarching social, political, spiritual, or psychological themes, Dunlap laughs. "All art is political. It's all been about something. Even those drawings in my sketchbook — I remember what was going on at that time. Art doesn't change, but we do."
Six of Dunlap's animal paintings will be featured in The Gibbes Museum of Art's upcoming exhibit Out of the Wild: Animals in Contemporary Art, and he'll be presenting a lecture on his new collection of short stories Short Mean Fiction later in the month.
In the introduction to his collection of short stories and sketches, Dunlap writes: "Artists keep sketchbooks. Mine, more than four decades' worth, are filled with visual shorthand ... These hybrid sketchbooks/journals have recently, as if of their own volition, come down from a high shelf in my studio to a table within easy reach."
In his college sketchbook/journal Dunlap jotted down notes for story ideas and wrote down salient sentences that would later become the center or starting point of stories, like "Open all Night." Dunlap says he remembers distinctly someone at Waffle House, at some time, saying "Honey, you'd sooner get a certified letter from Satan as to mess with me tonight." We find this line in the second paragraph of the story; two pages later, a customer has gotten into an altercation with police, shots are fired, the story ends. Short and mean, indeed.
Dunlap's stories attempt to harness the slick economy of short story masters like Hemingway and the throbbing dereliction of Southern gothic wordsmiths like O'Connor or Faulkner, but lack the subtlety of these greats. Dunlap, though, is not a career writer, he's a studied painter, and a world renowned one at that. "I found these stories, pieces of fiction, some almost complete, some just one line," says Dunlap. There's dissonance in the stories, which is inevitable after so much time between beginning and ending. Four decades worth of rethinking that idea you had when you were 19 years old; art doesn't change, but we do.
The stories are unforgiving: men and women alike have nefarious sexual encounters, people lie to each other, people murder, people look the other way. Dunlap says that his early stories and sketches are studies for his later paintings. We wonder, who are the five hounds, the faceless red jacketed men in "Landscape and Variable"? Are they the high school football star Galt and his love interest, Fran, who learned all things carnal, unbeknownst to Galt, from the much older football coach? Are they iterations of a revered professor who we learn in the story "Digressions on Viticulture" came into some kind of contact with a 12-year old Thai boy when he was at the Bangkok Oriental Hotel? Are they simply anonymous people, howling into the night?
In the book's afterword, a friend of the artist, Jane Livingston, writes that Dunlap is "emphatically not a bucolic, or plein air, painter. He is a studio artist, a pure inventor ... As a painter he has stubbornly hewed to a fundamentally conservative tradition in terms of medium, technique, format, and style." In his messy, immature, decades-old sketches we see a diversion from this "conservative tradition," — in these sketches we find the subtlety, the enigma of the man. The renderings are rough, yet precise, the accompanying hand-scribbled notes completely illegible. Dunlap describes his approach to art as "hypothetical realism." We see in the sketches the beginnings of this method — the profile of a woman on the cover, mouth pursed, eyebrows furrowed. She looks sad, maybe, confused, perhaps. She looks like someone you've seen before. "The scenes I paint," says Dunlap, "they aren't real, but they could be."