New York

Jeanne Dunning

Feature Inc.

Jeanne Dunning tends to take two kinds of photographs: at first glance, you might characterize them as pictures that either defamiliarize the familiar or vice versa. The former present a thing in a way that suggests something else, as in Dunning’s well-known pictures of anuslike fruits, or in a recent photograph called Hand Hole (all works 1994), a tight close-up of a cupped hand that takes on the appearance of some sort of sexual orifice; the latter clearly and unambiguously focus on an obviously manufactured bodily “deformity,” as in The Extra Nipple, a photograph that could easily be your standard headshot if the subject weren’t sticking her tongue out to reveal a vestigial nipple.

It’s important not to infer from this, however, that Dunning is merely some dilettante surrealist. Formally, her photos are never ambiguous or obscure: solidly posed or composed, clearly lit, perfectly focused, the pictures are the very model of photographic correctness. When an object appears to read as something unfamiliar, it’s not because Dunning obscures it (her early pictures of the backs of women’s heads, as any good coupeur de nattes understands, were not pictures of the absence of faces) but, rather, that she draws out a family of traits from something we are accustomed to recognizing by an entirely different set of traits. We think of fruit primarily as something to eat, not to fuck, and yet. . . . When Dunning brings out the orifice in a piece of fruit, she’s presenting a sort of botanical sexuality that, unlike vegetarianism, doesn’t even have a proper name. Similarly, we still recognize the hand in Hand Hole, and yet Dunning has depicted it not as a thing that grasps a brush or points in a direction, but as an orifice, one suggestively sexual in nature.

When Dunning’s pictures defamiliarize, it’s by highlighting “abnormality,” and when they familiarize, it’s by adding anomalies to a seemingly “normal” situation—an attractive girl with a nipple on her tongue. In either case, she draws out the perverse in every picture with all the singularity of intent that Poe recommends for a good short story. The way each work focuses on some defect is practically monomaniacal. In The Toe-Sucking Video, the idée fixe is no longer a thing but a process, the abnormality no longer something one has but something one does. A woman laboriously and obsessively sucks on the big toe of her right foot, and it’s sort of sexy but arduous to watch. Obviously the work has multiple connotations: it calls to mind oral sex, foot fetishism, thumb-sucking, masturbation, and all manner of pseudo-Freudian attempts to account for these “perversions.” Nevertheless, it is not reducible to any one of these. First and foremost it’s self-directed toe-sucking—a specialty which, like the sexuality that directs itself at fruits and vegetables, doesn’t even have a name. In the end, perhaps, it’s symptomatic of Dunning’s work as a whole: she’s as much a photographer of the nameless as of the anomalous.

Keith Seward