Once Upon a Time 

Local painter's recast nursery rhymes provoke examination of the historic narrative form and its enduring societal role

Local painter's recast nursery rhymes provoke examination of the historic narrative form and its enduring societal role

Mother Goose Fairy Tales

Paintings by Samuel Dunson Jr.

Through May 8 at In the Gallery, 624-A Jefferson St. 255-0705

Samuel Dunson Jr. isn't the first artist to update fairy tales and nursery rhymes, which is exactly the point. They furnish fundamental cultural raw material: a common reference point, a record of social relationships and history, and open-source code for ongoing work. In Dunson's hands, they provide the basis for tightly composed paintings in which the parts have clear narrative and visual functions. With their conceptual clarity and strong images, these works show Dunson to be one of the strongest artists working in Nashville today.

Nursery rhymes are the first poems we encounter, and fairy tales read by parents constitute some of the first narratives we hear. They all seem to come from nowhere specific, having been there all along as if they emerged from the world's unconscious. As we get older, we learn that these stories have sources. In some cases, they reach back to old history, like a myth. The rhyme "Ring Around the Posey" (one of the subjects in this show) dates from the plague years of the Middle Ages. Other stories have identified authors, and in many cases those stories reflect the concerns of their era or serve as a cloaked method for discussing topical issues.

Dunson, a black professor of art at Tennessee State University and a father of two, updates these universal tales by casting the stories and rhymes with black characters, and making connections between the material in them and black experience. For example, in "Humpty Dumpty," he changes Humpty from an egg to a watermelon—similarly shaped, equally susceptible to damage from falling, but carrying additional reference for African Americans. In this painting, Humpty is a runaway slave waiting in the woods at night while a search party of men and dogs comes for him. Dunson breaks up the surface of the painting by carving out the upper left corner of the main canvas and inserting a separate, smaller canvas there. Humpty's face falls onto this smaller section, prefiguring his fall and fracture and reinforcing his isolation and fear. Dunson's figuration and his historical setting for the nursery rhyme humanize the character and give him emotional detail, but the connection to the widely known rhyme simultaneously pushes human emotions into the realm of impersonal myth.

Nursery rhymes and fairy tales have historically played a role in social discourse on race relations. In some cases, the stories originated in African material borrowed by white culture. In others, the anthropomorphized animals that stand in for human characters can have, in context, a racial dimension, or become vehicles for racially oriented speech. The watercolor "Eeny Meeny Miny Moe" shows a black man's leg covered in tiger skin tights, with a string tied around the toe and pulled taught like a noose. Dunson includes the text, the first two lines written as: "Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe, / Catch a ____ by the Toe." The missing word is supposed to be "tiger," but white kids all over have substituted the rhyming racial epithet there. As I said before, these rhymes provide fundamental cultural raw material, and that brings the bad with the good. Kids exercise their facility with language to make these sorts of substitutions wherever they can. Dunson's painting asks whether the black man stood behind the tiger character all along. Did children impose a racial meaning or uncover it?

The strongest painting is "Three Blind Mice," where Dunson decks the mice out in hip-hop garb and has a frizzy haired woman chase them through an apartment hallway with an ax. The off-kilter perspective of the painting captures the angularity hip-hop producers achieve when they truncate and join samples not quite at natural end points.

Other works don't deal explicitly with fairy tales, but share their elements and tone. In "The Rising Cost of Soul Food," a chicken, catfish and hog lounge in the boiling water of a cooker, about to be joined by a man taking off his chef's apron. The cooker has dials with indicators for the health effects of a heavy diet: "300 lbs," "90 bpm," "170/100" and "290mg/dl." A directly allegorical painting, it touches on topical concerns about diet but also comments on appetite in general. Dunson's use of a fabulist's narrative approach reminds us that these tools remain available outside of the limits of specific story content.

Another painting that departs from specific source material, "Dust in the Wind" shows an old man sitting in a chair, his body transparent against the landscape behind him. The pose covers the old man's face, but Dunson modeled the chair after one his deceased grandfather left him. The painting shows how elders who inhabited our world fade slowly from presence among us after death. Eventually they become characters in stories—the ones our families tell. In this way, Dunson tightens the connections further: Starting with stories that rise from some sort of collective awareness, we see their multiple dimensions of historicity and continued use as tools for discourse. We are then allowed to acknowledge the literal presence of their characters and events in our personal lives.

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