In the Studio: Hollis Dunlap
Hollis Dunlap is an artist who other artists frequently discuss: his impressive draftsmanship, powerful style of painting, and strong personality create a curiosity about the type of work he produces and the personal and professional life behind it. Many are also interested in studying with Dunlap and finding out about his training and the various influences and experiences that led him to his current level of drawing and painting. To learn about this and more, I travelled to Dunlap’s studio in New London, Connecticut, at the end of February and spent the day visiting with him, viewing his work, and listening to stories about his upbringing, training, and experiences with art.
Dunlap was raised in rural Vermont and spent his childhood living a simple life that he describes as being grounding and humbling. Growing up in a family of hard workers, he knew his desire to be an artist might be met with dissuasion. But, like most artists, he couldn’t keep from drawing constantly from a young age, and his family and those around him noticed that he had real talent. During most of his adolescence Dunlap recalls being an introverted artist with a small group of close friends, and talked about some of the social strain involved with being an artsy type in a community that valued the outgoing athlete. At the same time, his artistic abilities were encouraged by several of his teachers, and he benefitted from a strong art program that prepared him for the next step in his training.
After high school, Dunlap attended the Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts, in Old Lyme, Connecticut, where he earned a B.F.A. in painting in 1999. He speaks highly of his schooling and the teachers from whom he learned. At the time he attended the academy, it was functioning much as an atelier, with a strong emphasis on the figure, drawing, anatomy, and working from life. Students had access to a variety of teachers — Dunlap had close to 30 instructors over the course of four years — as well as to nonacademic classes, such as composition and experimentation with conceptual concepts. The artist was particularly impressed with his closest teacher and mentor Deane G. Keller, as well as with Dan Gheno and Jerry Weiss. “They were incredible draftsmen and craftsmen, and their experience and knowledge opened our eyes to the larger art world,” he describes. “I took advantage of the many opportunities to draw and paint, and would sign up for every single life-drawing class they offered with the longest poses. I lived at that school, I loved it there.”
One aspect of Dunlap’s student work that he was not thrilled about — which he did not realize was a problem until several years after he was finished with school — was color. “I basically had to unlearn everything I learned about color and re-teach myself,” he said. “It’s actually not that difficult to get color right, but if you learn it the wrong way it can take a while to unlearn. I look at my paintings from that time and can’t believe how orange they were. I eventually got rid of the cadmiums and alizarin crimson because they were poisoning my palette. It took me 10 years to get those colors out of my system, but I knew I wanted a more tonal palette and finally figured out what I had to do to get it. It also helps to paint by natural light because it illuminates everything evenly, everything looks unified. Whereas artificial light only hits one area.”
Dunlap now paints predominantly by natural light — his studio windows face southeast, which he admits is problematic because of the inconsistency — and does the majority of his painting in daylight hours. His studio is located in his apartment. Or one could say his apartment is located somewhere in his studio. I was amused when I first walked in and saw more than 200 works filling the living areas: hung on and lined up along walls, stacked in the hallway, in piles on the floor, covering tables and surfaces. I would have assumed that even his bedroom was his studio if after looking through the stacks of drawings and paintings I didn’t see a mattress lying in the corner. I couldn’t help but think that this is likely what the living spaces of some of the prolific artists of the past might have looked like: every square inch filled to capacity with art, and the elements of daily living buried somewhere beneath the canvases, drawings, materials, frames, and instruments of creativity.
After talking with Dunlap for several hours it became clear that he spends as much time thinking about art — and artists — as he does creating it. He has strong convictions and opinions about many subjects, especially those related to how art is being created, shown, and sold. We also talked a lot his process and approach, and almost every sentiment he shared involved how he wants to improve, the areas he is unsatisfied with, or how he sees his work developing in the future. One of the first topics we discussed related to what he finds interesting and intellectual about painting, and what he does not. “Something that irritates me is when I don’t see anything beyond the surface, either in my own work or others’,” he admitted. “I find it very unappealing when an artist paints a nude simply for the sake of showing nakedness or attractiveness. I’d rather the painting be interesting than conventionally beautiful. That’s one of the reasons I love Freud. If you sat for him he was just as likely to paint what you find unattractive about yourself than what you find attractive.”
Dunlap also mentioned how he appreciates artists who put a lot of time and energy into each painting, and every area and object within that painting. He has been making a concerted effort to pay closer attention to the backgrounds, surfaces, and brushmarks in his work and cited examples of artists who have inspired him to take these aspects more seriously. “I respect artists who leave no area undone or as an afterthought, whose paintings have as much symbolism and attention to detail in the background and periphery as they do in the focal point,” he said. “This is something I’m working on more: to make everything in the painting interesting, not just one area. I love how Euan Uglow, one of my favorite artists, didn’t judge any one area as more important than another but painted everything equally in this almost mathematical, unified way with the smoothest, flattest surface. I also really admire Steven Assael, who works the hell out of his paintings until they’re right, or Adam Miller for the sheer amount of effort he puts into conceiving and creating each painting. When an artist intentionally leaves a painting unfinished, with a lot of slashey brushwork or areas just silhouetted out and unfinished, it can sometimes seem sloppy and commercial to me, and like the artist is showing off or being flippant. I think the reason some of that patchey brushwork bothers me is because I used to be guilty of it. I like to show the paint, but I don’t want it to look gimmicky. It depends on the artist too, and on his or her attitude. I know artists who have very visible brushwork, but I never get the sense that their ego is driving the painting.”
In continuing to talk about the concept of completeness in art-making, Dunlap admitted that he finds it easy to begin a painting when inspiration or an idea strikes, but often struggles to stay motivated in the ensuing stages. “I work in spurts,” he said. “I’ll have a week when I’m uninspired and will paint for just an hour a day, nothing is quite coming together. Then I will get inspired and paint every day, all day, until 10 or 11 at night. I find the further I get into a work, the harder it is to keep going. I have to be fully ready and energized. There are aspects of painting that are quite involved intellectually and that require total focus.” The artist says drawing — getting the proportions correct — and color require the most precision and concentration for him. (He draws with paint, he does not do an underdrawing.) Whereas he feels composition and design are his strong suits and come more naturally to him. “There are better draftsmen out there, there are better colorists, but composition is where I feel the most competent,” he shared. “I think composition is neglected in traditional training and in figurative work. In addition to taking composition classes in college, I’ve studied artists who excelled in this area: Inness in particular, as well as Rembrandt, whose designs were so intentional and theatrical. He set the stage for the drama in every painting.”
During pauses in our interview, Dunlap showed me around the studio and talked about both the displayed works on the wall and several that were packed in boxes or bins around the apartment. These included multiple large-scale finished paintings, small-scale sketches, and an amazing collection of drawings: both recently completely ones and sketchbooks full of student work. I particularly enjoyed seeing Dunlap’s graphite and charcoal works, especially three large-scale figure sketches in charcoal that were laid out on a carpenter’s table. His proficient draftsmanship reveals just how many hours he has spent studying the Old Masters and drawing from life. Prior to drawing as much as possible from the model during his four years of art college, Dunlap says he taught himself to draw by copying masterworks from Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Pontormo, Bernini, and other Renaissance greats. He showed me a portfolio of close to 200 Old Master copies from his youth, something he felt compelled to do without being told.
Caravaggio, Michelangelo, and Van Gogh are three of Dunlap’s favorite artists, and they came up frequently during our conversation. Not only has he long admired their work and process but he has also read numerous biographies on their lives and has an instinctual empathy for their personal struggles. At one point he talked about how he believes that interesting paintings are usually created by interesting, eccentric, and even odd people, and that he is suspicious of people who make it seem like everything in life is pretty and pleasant. “The best artists are the ones who show you who they really are, faults and all,” he said. “They don’t try to paint this picture like everything is grand all the time. I have a dark side and wrestle with doubts and demons like I’m sure many artists do, but I think the contrast is what makes things interesting: the darkness with the light, the highs with the lows. When I look at the work of Caravaggio or Michelangelo or Van Gogh, nothing is held back. Michelangelo’s work was the most sublime and the yet most tragic. He constantly struggled, nothing ever seemed to go right in his personal life. There is this great sadness in his work, an overwhelming sense of emotion. Caravaggio was a complete madman and lived a life of utter chaos, and yet when he painted everything came together in the most unbelievably beautiful and profound ways. And of course we all know about Van Gogh. He was so sad, you can still feed the sadness through the paintings, and you just want to help him. He laid everything bare before us: the strong, intense, crazy, struggling artist. And that is what makes his work so powerful and compelling.
“I want to be honest and real with who I am and put more of that edginess and emotion into my work,” the artist continued. “One of my closest friends whom I’ve known since childhood recently looked at my paintings and commented that they’re not weird enough. I knew exactly what he meant by that: he knows all of my quirks and idiosyncrasies, and he wasn’t seeing all of that in my paintings.” Dunlap takes inspiration from a lot of “edgy” artists from Expressionism, early Modernism, and contemporary perceptual painting. He has recently become especially interested in the German Expressionists and showed me a book on Oskar Kokoschka from the Neue Galerie that he has been studying closely. Flipping through the pages and enthusiastically pointing out his favorite paintings he commented, “He cares about so much more than just getting the drawing right, I love that. There is so much emotion and narrative going on, it’s complex and intense and just interesting.” Dunlap also mentioned wanting to put more elements of surrealism into his future work. “Certain aspects of surrealism appeal to me because I like the idea of having objects in the work other than what I’ve copied exactly from life,” he said. “I think imagination and invention have their place in painting too.”
During the visit Dunlap talked about the business of art and the gallery world. For 10 years he was represented by Axelle Fine Arts in New York City — where he would have an annual solo exhibition — but ended his relationship with them about two years ago. Currently he is represented by Gallery 1261, in Denver; Sirona Fine Art, in Hallandale Beach, Florida; and CK Contemporary, in San Francisco. He also regularly participates in group and pop-up shows, and was recently in an invitational group exhibition at The Unit London, featuring more than 50 artists in the first Instagram-curated art show. Additionally, he will be a part of the next Moleskine Project at Spoke Art — a group exhibition where each artist contributes a page of a moleskine sketchbook — and also just shipped four paintings to Q Art Salon in Los Angeles for an exhibition featuring the Rome Art Workshop faculty. “Even though I have been showing in several different venues and shows lately,” the artist said, “this is the first time in a long time that I don’t have a solo show to paint or plan for, and I’m pretty happy about that. I have been wanting to scale back, rethink where I am showing my work, and concentrate on getting better. I am very particular about where I show my art now. I have to be excited by the space, the other artists, and how the work is being presented. I have a hard time finding where I fit in the gallery world because if I try to get into some of the grittier contemporary galleries — say in Chelsea for instance — they think I’m too traditional. But then when I look at the gallery world of the ‘traditional,’ mainly the realist-art galleries, I’m generally unimpressed by what I see. It seems safe and nice: the space is pretty and the paintings are hung in an orderly way and it just doesn’t interest or excite me. I would rather show in some warehouse or industrial space where there is more wall space. A beautiful gallery is great, but I don’t like when paintings are hung salon-style or crammed together with no room to breathe. I also want to exhibit my work alongside other types of artists, even abstract or nonfigurative — why should representational artists divorce themselves from the edgier aspects of life or segregate themselves into a subculture? We should be out there exhibiting and standing next to other contemporary artists. I will probably plan a show in the future at some pop-up space that I organize myself and see how that goes.”
When discussing these matters Dunlap was vocal about the culture of the mainstream art markets. Among other topics, he talked about how although some of the “mega galleries” seem to be a little more receptive to the idea of traditional art than in the recent past, there is still resistance. “Realism and representational art have strong elements of skill and craft, and therefore show that the artist labored and invested a lot of time creating these pieces,” he said. “Some people in elite circles would rather not be reminded of physical labor and the common laborer. It’s a separate world for them. I think this is why realism has always been so appealing to me. I love the element of the physical labor, of it being connected to the earth and to humanity: the dirt, the marble, the pigments. It’s about real life, humanness, connection.” Dunlap talked about how important the physical aspects of art-making was to his teacher Deane G. Keller and how often he discussed the labor involved with creating structure and image. Dunlap also shared how he often feels the urge to work outside and build or tend to something. “I’m a very moody person,” he admitted, “and there are times when I need to just get outside and work with my hands. I have a landscaper friend who calls me up now and then and asks me to help with a project. It feels good to spend the day digging in the dirt and connecting with the earth.”
I next asked Dunlap a follow-up question from a previous Q+A we had done two years ago. In that interview, he talked about wanting to do more narrative work in the near future, so I asked if he has been working in that vein. He showed me a large 52-x-84-inch piece in progress that is currently on the easel. The original painting was from four years ago, one that the artist had never finished. He recently took it out and started to rework it with a specific idea and story in mind. “The painting was originally of a woman in a garden,” the artist explained. “For years I would stare at it in the corner of my bedroom, knowing something wasn’t right and that I wanted to rework it. I’m still not entirely sure what the narrative will be, but I have some ideas. I’m not religious, but I love religious painting, it’s some of my favorite work in art history. So I started putting in halo shapes and angel wings around this woman. I wanted that vibe so that she could be viewed as an angel or the Virgin Mary. She’s an angel to me, I think of her like that. I think of the Virgin Mary as a symbol of all women, as mothers and daughters and human beings. I’m thinking I may have more figures too, possibly three, referencing the Three Graces or symbolism alluding to Botticelli’s Primavera. I’m interested to see how this one develops.”
After a full day of discussion — and an impromptu guitar performance: Dunlap is a skilled musician who has been playing electric guitar for more than 15 years and plays in a few bands — I asked Dunlap about plans for any upcoming workshops or events. He shared that he will be teaching a 10-day figure-painting workshop in Rome this summer, June 27 through July 8, through Rome Art Workshops. This immersive instructional experience involves intense long-pose study and painting of the figure, demonstrations from the artist, all-day studio access, trips to local museums and churches to study Old Master work, accommodations, and more. For more information, visit romeartworkshops.com. Dunlap will also be teaching a five-day “Painting in Natural Light” workshop in Menorca, Spain this October 18 through October 23. For more information, visit Dunlap’s website at hollisdunlap.com