David Dunlap

Though a number of artists have specialized in making artwork that draws from the constant inner monologue of consciousness, for David Dunlap this process has become the core of a practice based on the paradoxical precept that the more we pay attention to our thoughts, emotions, and perceptions, “the more we don’t know.” This entrancing, equivocal ·world view was apparent in every detail of This is Always Finished, 1995, a complicated, encyclopedic image-text installation that sprawled through the gallery with a kind of faux-naive charm. The main elements were furnished by Dunlap’s journals—pocket-sized notebooks, of which he has filled more than 400 to date, as well as larger bound books full of drawings and writings. In this installation, not only were many of the small journals displayed closed in handsome, glass-fronted cases, but a series of individually framed, dated pages, each one containing a simple drawing in pencil or ballpoint pen, grouped together in rows or grids revealed a portion of the journals’ contents. Lines connecting some of them hinted at a genealogy, though there was often little change from one generation to the next. The same images—disembodied heads with closed eyes, sinuous pictographic doodles, hands rising out of water—constantly reappeared.

The phrases Dunlap had painted and written throughout the room repeated themselves in much the same way, as if the artist had arrived at both images and texts through dreams or visions and then collected them in his notebooks. These phrases take the form of essential if strange truths: “By swallowing and spitting out, I was able to disappear.” “Small animals make first paths.” “If your story is more interesting than your object, then your story is your object.” And, of course, “This is always finished,” a statement that at first seems paradoxical, considering that Dunlap clearly conceived of his journals as a lifetime project. (A casket-shaped bookshelf in the installation contained hundreds of blank spiral-bound notebooks—at least three score and ten year’s worth.) Yet, at each moment, Dunlap is finished: he is paying attention to what is going on, rather than losing himself in the past or the future.

In the work of some artists, this kind of complete self-absorption is neither terribly interesting nor attractive. Dunlap’s intensity, however, is ultimately directed outside himself, toward an indefinable kind of good, as personified by a particular group of modern saints. Amid the dreamy drawings and homemade mantras that covered the walls, there were several images—some of them quite large—of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Inside a house-shaped structure in the middle of the room, Dunlap had put together what amounts to a shrine to King as well as several others, including Anne Frank, Steven Biko, Jerzy Popieluszki, and Mahatma Gandhi.

Curiously, despite the presence of these martyrs for peace and freedom, Dunlap’s work somehow remains decidedly nonpolitical. His focus is on the patience, sensitivity, and above all, the courage necessary to really live. Immortality, he seems to suggest, is not a matter of physical survival, but of defeating time by being in the moment. In this way, he identifies his own task as a kind of spiritual practice. After all, as Saint Augustine once said: “work is prayer.”

Maria Porges