One of the pieces in Terra Firma, Sam Dunson’s new show at TAG, consists of a bunch of small cartoons of a black man’s head adorned with symbols of various obsessions and concerns—art, money, religion, different people’s initials. They are connected by the tendrils of a vine, painted on the gallery wall, which leads back to a little house. It could be a family tree, except that all the heads are self-portraits of Dunson. The artist has an endless supply of ways to make fun of himself, with one visual quip inspiring another. And you see a sense of self that is mercurial and fragmented.
The restless quality of these portraits reflects new directions in Dunson’s work. He’s known for narrative paintings that address black experience in tightly composed scenarios where each object has its place, even when he manipulated perspective to set elements a bit off-kilter. In the new work, Dunson has retained his thematic interests, moved further from internal unity of perspective and style, and let the sense of narrative get very fluid as he invites more complexity and even chaos into his art.
“Star Belly” exemplifies the less linear qualities of Dunson’s new work. A visual quote from Dr. Seuss jumps out—a Sneech, a birdlike figure with a star on his belly, rendered just like in the books. The star shape becomes a leading motif in the picture. A wisp of smoke or fog streams from the door of a house, ending in a blocky star that looks like the graphics from a Saturday morning cartoon show. More chillingly, the star pattern has been branded onto the belly of a pot-bellied black man dressed in ragged shorts. The scarred man himself stands on the back of another black man down on all fours, creating a double-figure of oppression. And the images of oppression go one step further with an enchained slave kneeling to the side of the others. The significance of the Sneech isn’t clear, nor is the relation of the star-bellied man to the one holding him up. Rather than presenting a fixed narrative, this picture trades in complex associations among its main figures, and in connections between Dunson’s own identities as an African American and as the father of young children who might be reading Dr. Seuss.
Throughout these paintings you find unexpected, elusive combinations of pop and more traditional visual references. The four-armed Hindu goddess Kali, dressed in a jumper dress and a lamb costume, carries the TV puppet character Lambchop on one hand. Kool-Aid’s trademark pitcher dances through a scene inspired by the 1978 mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana.
Not only do the references come fast, the picture planes explode with background shapes and forms that use a variety of painting and collage styles. Spray-painted lace patterns add texture to several paintings. Shapes rendered in a hard-edged cartoon style pop up, such as the clouds and unmoored speech balloons in the background of “Star Belly.” These shapes increase the crowded and restless undertone, and the cartoon look connects Dunson to stylistic trends that you don’t typically associate with him.
In the midst of this lively proliferation of references and shapes, grief and anxiety are the prevailing emotions. An important reference point is a mixed-media work, “Ode to the Alpha Mound.” It’s an almost entirely gray picture, centered on a photograph of a precarious pile of teddy bears and plush toys. Next to the pile lies a drawing of a doll with her mouth open and a ghostly figure emerging out of it. Dunson took the photo in his home town of Dayton, Ohio, where he ran across several of these piles of toys, assembled as community memorials to dead children. The teddy bears from these memorials recur in many other pictures in the show, hinting at paternal anxiety for the safety of children.
For all the variety of textures and styles, the piling on of images and references, and the intuitive connections between elements, two elements unite many of these pictures—a wood house or shed, and sharply curved ground underneath the characters. The curve of the ground draws attention to the terra firma of the show’s title, but the curve is often so exaggerated (e.g., “Ode to the Alpha Mound”) as to be precious and belie firmness. The house provides connection and continuity between the paintings, and to a personal, social and psychological past. The wood-frame building seems distinctly rural, reaching back to the past of African American communities. Houses are also the vessel for the family, where stories and memories reside.
With the TAG show, Dunson has set his art in motion, upsetting the terms and boundaries of his previous work. He’s still engaged with black experience, but not at the expense of the other ways he participates in the culture—as a consumer of pop culture and nightly news, as a father, and as a participant in the contemporary art world. He shows himself more willing to lose control, which has liberating qualities, although it runs some risk—of allowing too much to happen in the works without (a) providing sufficient means of organization, or (b) completely surrendering to self-organization and randomness. Still, Dunson’s narrative instincts seem intact—the wealth of styles and associations crowding these images creates a nervous tone well aligned with the anxiety that wells up when confronted with the prospect of childhood death.
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