São Paulo

Bruno Dunley, Cabeça de ferro (Head of Iron), 2019, oil on canvas, 86 5⁄8 × 70 7⁄8".

Bruno Dunley, Cabeça de ferro (Head of Iron), 2019, oil on canvas, 86 5⁄8 × 70 7⁄8".

Bruno Dunley

There was something arrestingly fraught about the latest works of Brazilian artist Bruno Dunley. Although the show’s title, “Virá” (It Will Come), taken from one of the works on view, had an upbeat ring, the eight large oil paintings and twelve smaller works on paper (made with conté crayon, oil pastel, charcoal, and graphite) nevertheless emanated a keen sense of tension, even unease.

In the text accompanying the exhibition, Luis Pérez-Oramas invoked the works of Brazilian painter Alfredo Volpi as well as artist Jordan Kantor’s 2004 Artforum essay “The Tuymans Effect.” Indeed, Dunley’s work hovers between Volpi’s geometrically bound aesthetic and Luc Tuymans’s looser approach, characterized by fluid movements between representation and abstraction. However, unlike Tuymans’s muted paintings, and even more than Volpi’s harmoniously colored ones, Dunley’s latest oils are increasingly, sometimes discordantly, bright. While most hint at figuration, which informed his earlier works, its vestiges are subsumed in seemingly haphazard abstract arrangements. If Tuymans’s deliberately “deskilled” aesthetic—crude rendering, a limited palette, idiosyncratic cropping—freed painters from the fear of failure, Dunley dramatizes this passage from tension to release.

Such liberation can be quick, and the energy that results from it can be scrappy. Dunley’s Bombshell, 2018, for example, a drawing in conté crayon and charcoal on paper, is rendered on an off-white background, smudged with dirty gray and streaks of yellow, blue, and red. Painted in scarlet block letters, the titular word is split in half: BOMB dominates the top, while below it a listing SHELL is overlaid by a mushroomlike form, outlined in dark green, whose “cap” is formed of bulbous shapes, one of which vaguely resembles a heart. We’re on a terrain that’s neither representational nor abstract, but Bombshell nevertheless manages to incarnate the drastic allure of its title and to perturb.

Less immediately explosive than the drawings, Dunley’s paintings gain force through the layering and accretion of contradictory, spatially dispersed impulses. Uma saudade, um sonho (A Longing, a Dream), 2015–19, is a predominantly blue-red composition with two round shapes that bring to mind laboratory flasks, one of them upside down, attached to a navy-blue base and linked by a curved white-and-yellow line. Light—or energy—appears to course along this circuit, and something like a reflection forms in the bottom flask. But the evocations of real objects are vague enough to give way to the suggestion of more metaphorical chemistry, and the real accent is on the materiality of the paint from which all of this has been conjured. For example, the two nails painted in the work’s top corners are foreshortened and cast trompe l’oeil shadows, but the illusion of depth clashes with the composition’s overall diagrammatic flatness. Dunley has even painted a decorative frame around his imagery to remind us that we are looking at a two-dimensional plane.

Cabeça de ferro (Head of Iron), 2019, creates a spunkier, more ebullient effect. A looping snakelike form against a muddied-butterscotch background is made up of vigorous strokes of smudged chartreuse in which yellows occasionally turn into moss green as the paint mixes with the jagged blue underneath. Despite this coloristic indefiniteness, there’s a sculptural feeling, an illusion of a bas-relief. The bottom half brims with more textures, akin to jumbled pieces of cloth, creating its own depth and jarring rhythms. Again, Dunley paints a dark frame, inlaid with thin red lines and decorative blue daubs, but this time only on three sides. At the bottom, he has applied ivory-white spots instead, which echo the decorative pattern near the right edge. With its pictorial mischief and propositional ungainliness, and the constant stress test of human perception’s ability to parse out figuration from abstraction, Dunley’s project seems particularly apt for expressing life’s sensory entanglements.