“Structure and Space,” the title of Hollis Dunlap’s recent show at Axelle Galerie in New York City, emphasized the formal values that undergird all good compositions, whether abstract or representational. Dunlap is a realist who knows how to create the illusion of depth and to give his figures convincing physical presence. He works in traditional genres—figure, still life, interior, landscape. But he has no interest in the legerdemain of smooth finish. He keeps the process raw, explaining “I have always enjoyed the look and feel of oil paint, and don’t make the image look like anything other than a painting.” In Black and Yellow Girl (all works 2014), a girl in a simple white shirt is posed in profile against the patterned backdrop, with her dark hair shadowing her face. Dunlap uses chiaroscuro to add drama to everyday situations. Caravaggio is one of his favorite artists.
Dunlap maintains a balance between the illusion of a three-dimensional world within his compositions and the two-dimensionality of the painted surface. In Far Away, a young woman reclines on a sofa, in a dark skirt and no top, daydreaming, with a white flower beside her. Dunlap exploits the textural variety of the paint—especially the different whites of the flower, the throw covering the sofa and her pallid skin—with energetic brushwork. Dreamtime moves in a less-quotidian direction. The model, a girl in a partially open red robe, confronts us from the center of what may have started as a bed but has morphed into a fish-eye curved background, with a strong painterly blue presence that suggests an altered state of consciousness. Her pose—knees pulled up to one side, arms open—seems hieratic. Dunlap cites an eclectic group of influences—abstractionists for their “experimental paint application and paint surfaces,” Italian and Spanish Baroque for his figure work and Dutch artists for his interiors and still lifes. He does not mimic the artists he admires but has absorbed their ways of looking. Still Life with Yellow Vase, for example, owes much to Vermeer in its celebration of the alchemy of natural light. The slender yellow vase and a voluptuous white pitcher stand out as sculptural forms, while a goblet between them seems to blend into the shadows. Dunlap’s main work space is his living room, and his viewers will come to recognize features from this home studio from picture to picture, notably the light from a window on the left. In Afternoon Interior, the rust-colored sofa provides a base line; above and beyond sit a white pitcher and ornate red bowl on a counter, and a workaday kitchen with brown cabinets. Brush marks add a smudgy expressiveness to every surface, especially the white-grey plaster around the visible window.
The window is off camera, as it were, for Early Morning, but the sunlight it admits is the moving force of the composition. We see more of the sofa, and its vibrant color dominates the room, enhanced by the gold-toned wood of a guitar, an instrument Dunlap enjoys playing. The architecture of the picture is established by that guitar, propped up and casting crisp shadows, and by the diagonal light that cuts across the sofa. Afternoon Interior has an observational charm. The same room, reframed in Early Morning, snaps into focus as a dynamic visual structure. The inviting warmth of the scene comes not only from the palette but also from the velvety nap of the artist’s brushstrokes. The artist remarks: “I find the realism of an image can become more compelling when it is obviously made up of paint of various colors and shapes.”
Dunlap’s commitment to painterliness drives his approach to the landscape genre. He has been painting on site since he was fourteen, although he frequently works the scenes into larger compositions in the studio. He credits his plein-air experience with helping him “capture light effects very quickly and be decisive with brush marks.” Distant City is an industrial landscape, a long perspective shot down an unprepossessing street of warehouses and trailers, with a glimpse of glittering buildings on the horizon, but the light transforms the mundane scene: it is the only natural element needed. The vista in Across the Bay has more immediate appeal. On the far side of the water, a handsome white house, with an old-fashioned porch, rises. It could be a conventionally pretty picture, except for the pulsing energy of the paint-handling—a loose scumble of varied green for foreground foliage, creamy smears of white paint for clouds—which suggests the changes of wind and light. Dunlap’s series set in Central Park may build on the nineteenth-century infatuation with dark, leafy places, as seen in works by Corot, Courbet and the Barbizon school. Bethesda Fountain provides a focal point in The Fountain: a couple of roughly formed figures at the base are already being swallowed up by afternoon shadows, while the Angel of the Waters statue above them is indistinctly but effectively silhouetted against the fading light of the sky. Central Park Night could be characterized as a nocturne, but could never be confused for one of what Whistler called the “painted veils” of tonalism. Dunlap’s hand is visible everywhere, in the lush dark foliage, in the slender trees reflected in the white-yellow smudge of the pond. He reconciles the lure of mimesis with “the feeling of sculpting with paint.” “Structure and Space” was on view March 15–April 12, 2014, at Axelle Galerie, 472 West Broadway, New York, New York 10012. Telephone (212) 226-2262. axelle.com