Chicago

John Dunn

Roy Boyd Gallery

John Dunn’s moody, secretive, recent paintings seem composed of random and largely abstract pictorial elements that drift across the canvases in dreamy abandon. This palpable poetic diffidence is hard won—the pictures seem battered and bruised—and results from Dunn’s careful planning and meticulous execution. He treats canvas as a veil: sometimes it is all surface, sometimes it functions as discloser or revealer of uncharted depths, but always it remains a tactile vehicle of enormous sensual power.

Dunn has severely restricted his color schemes in each of the nine works in this exhibition. Somber grays and tans, acidic yellows, ochres, and tepid olive greens make up his entire palette, and he applies these colors in casual washy fields that seem to dissolve into the weave of the canvas. Over these bases, fragments of pictorial elements are scumbled and scrawled in seemingly arbitrary sequences that suggest, but never precisely define, form or substance. Dunn’s use of a diptych format in five of these works, and his implicit segmenting of his canvases in the rest, structurally undercut any single reading of these images, and as a result our experience of them is accretive. Even his titles—Hadow, Enig, Umin, Vanis, and Myst (all works 1990), for example—are fragments of words, indications that knowledge and comprehension is contingent, elusive, and incomplete, and that we are standing on ever-shifting sands, furiously trying to reckon with chaos.

In Enig, two cursive vertical elements are drawn over amorphous surfaces. There is a kind of vague indulgence here, a conscious immersion in painterly confusion that engenders reverie. It matters little if these shapes describe a specific body part or are completely abstract. His paintings percolate to a slow boil, content to absorb our interest while revealing little of themselves; they parry and thrust, ebb and flow, and finally catalogue a surprising range of pictorial nuances. Several of Dunn’s paintings, Apora, Umin, and Incid, take up the motif of the curtain and the stage in various ways. These are blank prosceniums, empty settings for dramas that are exclusively pictorial. Dunn’s curtains furl in empty promise; they hang dispiritedly, triggering expectations they refuse to fulfill and functioning as a perfect metaphor for his entire inquiry. Incid is comprised of four small canvases arranged around blank space in the center. Dunn’s delicate balancing act here consists of presenting this absence, this void, in a manner as unobtrusive as possible, of painting the canvases in such a way as to make emptiness appear inevitable—the symbiotic companion of the fields that surround it. These paintings constitute an essay in being and nothingness, and in the almost poignantly imperceptible differences that separate them.

James Yood