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The Melodrama of Kyle Dunn’s Night Pictures

In Downward Dog (2023), the subject of the painting appears to be making a last-ditch attempt at self-care as he performs yoga whilst balancing a glass of wine on his back. In Paper Angel (2023), the subject seems to have just come to after a period of dissociation and is now left to contemplate the detritus of his life. In Sawn Man (2023), we see a man’s legs standing over his partner’s sleeping body. Overarching the series is a sense of familiarity. It’s clear that Dunn knows these small hours well.

There is a tenderness between the painter and his subjects. A confessed night owl, ‘Night Pictures’ emerged from Dunn’s own late-night routines. “I am more or less a nocturnal person when I paint, and eventually, the idea of the night itself and all the feelings that I associate with it, like quiet contemplation, regret and passion, came to pervade the show.” 

Dunn evokes the feeling of night-time through his precise attention to lighting. “Most of these paintings,” he says, “have a ‘here’ and a ‘there,’ and the relationship between those two provides a lot of context. So the lighting in this series was crucial, and the setting established by the presence of the window allowed me to lay the groundwork for the overall feeling of these paintings. Ultimately, how you feel when you’re alone at 8 pm is drastically different from how you feel at 3 am, and that’s what I wanted to convey here.” 

The characters, too, are based on Dunn’s best-known subjects, his partner and himself. “Painting comes from a place of desire for me,” explains Dunn, “and as I am a gay man, the subject of my paintings is often my boyfriend or a composite of us both. That’s not a hard rule moving forward, but it is how this show developed.” Dunn studied sculpture at Maryland College of Art, and his technical ability allows him to capture the human figure in all of its erotic and comedic vulnerability. At times the intimacy creates a sense of hysteria which Dunn contrasts with comedy. “If you deal in melodrama,” says Dunn “, humour is as necessary to painting as lemon is to fried fish.”

His attention to balance allows Dunn’s paintings to remain truthful to their narrative, which is the defining feature of his work. “Last year, I painted Match (2022). It was more or less a direct portrait without a narrative edge, and it bothered me. It didn’t feel complete until I changed his hand to be holding a lit match in bed. Once I had that, I worked backwards and tweaked the lighting and props around him to exaggerate that feeling of forlorn romance. It’s often like that–having a narrative angle helps to keep things more precise.” 

Dunn’s works tell stories of urban claustrophobia, all too familiar to fellow city dwellers. He says this stems from his own domestic space where he lives and works, “The line between work and life, public and private, can become pretty blurred. That idea became very clear in these paintings. They’re kind of in a collapsed space.” 

“On the one hand,” he says, “they exist between the tangible things around me and my memories; on the other, they are fictionalised and exaggerated. I’m not trying to paint true or slice of life images, but I want to create emotionally resonant and truthful paintings, even if they are exaggerated.”

Dunn describes Night Pictures as “a quiet show, with a low decibel of manic energy running throughout.”