Richard Dunn

At first glance, Richard Dunn’s latest paintings look like samples from a tartan catalogue that have been enlarged and placed across oversized white canvases. Each tartan rectangle is also a window into cell-like spaces and each viewer a jailer, surveying his or her unseen charges. Monochromatic squares of tartan alternately suggest a parody of neo-Modernist abstraction and the murky grids and perspectival spaces of a prison. Dunn’s pictures are a sort of Rorschach inkblot endurance test that is dependent on the viewer’s taste for extremely complicated textual puzzles. Developing from the artist’s decade-long interpretation of Michel Foucault’s theories of power, surveillance, and prisons, the peculiar passivity of these paintings clearly corresponds to an idea of style freed from its moorings and set rolling through the phantoms of contemporary culture. Push and Pull (Shining Forth), 1992, is an endpoint in the line of modern visions of painting and architecture. Flat acrylic paint and grayed-tartan diagrams replace the dynamic gestalt of Hans Hofmann. Spatial extension, on the other hand, is suggested by tartan grids patterned according to an extraordinarily convoluted logic. Dunn’s paintings repopulate Abstract Expressionist space with the McFarlane, McGregor, Anderson, and Erskine tartans (those of his Scottish grandparents). An ambivalent creation of hermetic distance is dependent at the same time on opacity, which is clearly signaled by the crisp, white paint surrounding each patterned square.

Dunn is clearly fascinated by both legibility and the liminal threshold at which plausibility falters. His works have, therefore, affinities with the equally learned abstractions of Ross Bleckner, but without the crepuscular metaphysics. Dunn’s paintings mimic and colonize their AbEx sources to different degrees, both through the appropriation of famous titles—such as Push and Pull (Portrait and a Dream), 1992, and Push and Pull (Eyes in the Heat), 1992—and through the emblematic caricature of Jackson Pollock’s allover composition. Push and Pull (Portrait and a Dream) is, like its model (Pollock’s Portrait and a Dream, 1953), divided into two parts: one side is monochromatic; the other is painted in primary colors. The right side is a distorting gray mirror of the other and, appropriately, a mirror reversal of Pollock’s picture. Dunn’s exquisitely painful imprisonment and concealment of Abstract Expressionist gesture reflects his pursuit of a dialectical painting that deliberately denies the unification of disjunctive parts. The partition of the paintings by grids and fields of blank white canvas is, again, a sign that all connections and deductions are tenuous. Refusing the traces of all except the most minimal pleasure, their ambiguity and the recurrence of split or mirror images inevitably suggests the Freudian space of dreams. Dunn’s paintings are, paradoxically, both quaintly personal and extraordinarily close to the uncompromising outer edge of the impersonal.

Charles Green