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These paintings depict a complex, shadowy view of masculinity

On show at PPOW Gallery in New York, Brooklyn-based artist Kyle Dunn’s latest exhibition, Night Pictures follows a single queer protagonist whose emotions unfold in the shadows.

“The idea of nighttime and the specific emotions associated with it serve as a narrative through-line,” Dunn tells Dazed. “Over time, the paintings became more specific to my life as a painter. I am a night owl, and it’s a strange set of contradictions, as you’re in a dense urban setting but working alone; fixated on completing a single image whose inspiration is personal but is also meant to be consumed by a wider audience.”

Dunn’s being is delicately cast in shafts of light. A composite of the artist, his partner and men from a well of historical and social imagery, the figure seems alone and vulnerable. “This show is about masculinity only so much as it is about my relationship to it personally, which as I’m sure is the case for many gay men, is a complicated push and pull between desire and constraint,” says Dunn. “I sometimes want to be free of it all, even as I find its signifiers seductive.”

In “The Hunt”, Dunn depicts his lead preparing for a night out. To the left of the frame, modestly obscured by footwear, cocktails and cosmetics, is a pastiche of Pieter Bruegel’s “The Hunters in the Snow”. Dunn describes the painting as being “imbued with desire, self-confidence and even self-doubt”, as his subject gets ready for an altogether different kind of hunt, on the dating scene: “I was thinking of Kate Bush’s The Hounds of Love when paintings this,” the artist reflects. “He is sniffing a silk Oxford – possibly his lover’s – while a hunting hound races off-screen, presumably on the trail of whoever’s scent is on the shirt. I wanted there to be a certain grandness and heft to this moment, as when it happens in real life the emotional stakes are high.”

Earnestness is perhaps the most defining quality of Night Pictures. In the painting “Paper Angel”, Dunn explores the compositional format of the lone figure in the mirror. “‘Paper Angel’ depicts a man crouching before a mirror, with a tower of detritus of ho-hum everyday life – books, food, half consumed, letters and cigarettes. I was trying to get at that feeling of when you take a mental step back from your life, look at it entirely, and don’t know where to begin, what to do next, what matters, or if you can find a pattern or meaning in it all. This is a very night-time feeling for me. I wanted the paper angel on the wall above to be like a spirit of potentially ironic meaning rising from the otherwise functional paper books.”

Kyle Dunn – Night Pictures is at PPOW Gallery, 392 Broadway, New York until May 13, 2023