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Kyle Dunn: Night Pictures

Kyle Dunn’s Night Pictures offers quiet, intimate scenes that hum with depth. In one painting, A Night Off (2023), a couple lie together in bed, the tops of their heads visible as one turns toward the other while he looks at the ceiling; they are bathed in rose-colored light, the sheets are mussed, and the glimpse of outside through the window suggests early evening. The lower half of the canvas shows a dog asleep under the bed, an abandoned cocktail, a box of matches, a bowl, and fruit. In other words, this is queer life that lingers in the afterglow or aftermath—what happens after the party, after sex? Under the rubric of domesticity—cocktails, dogs, and fashionable garments—the show brings together a wealth of ambivalent emotions, seemingly brought about by the day’s slide into night. Does queer domesticity evoke calm or claustrophobia? The faces of his subjects are often turned away from the viewer—absorbed in their evening thoughts and tasks, so that their emotional responses are unreadable. The psychological qualities of “night” also vary; Dunn presents “afters” in the form of coming home, getting undressed, stretching as well as moments “before” with subjects in contemplation, studying a relatively blank canvas, or journaling. Are these scenes of exhausted dénouement or anxious anticipation?

There is a more profound message behind this ambiguity; these paintings are also about the complexity and unknowability of interiority itself. One way that we see this is in Dunn’s use of mirrors and windows, both of which bring the outside into these domestic scenes, signaling a collapse between the physical boundaries between interior and exterior. We can also trace the impact of this porosity of the interior in the ways that Dunn incorporates himself, his personal life, and cultural and historical referents into the people in his paintings, who are described as composites. These conjunctions make the paintings into ciphers, setting the viewer up to question what they are seeing and what they are projecting.

For example, Paper Angel (2023) features a nude young man crouched in front of a mirror, looking to the side, not directly into it. Reflected behind him is a cane and wicker chair and an open window offering a glimpse of a twilight sky and a leafy tree branch, along with, perhaps, the top floor of an apartment building across the street. In the foreground are stacks of books, eggs, oranges, rolled up paper, and chalk. We see the shadows on the wall, the furniture in the room—a wooden dresser with a potted plant on top of it and behind the mirror, another window with an image of a white T-shirt hanging. There are, then, many formations of interiors and exteriors. Additionally, since we know that the subject is an amalgamation, we can read his moment of self-reflection as its own play with self-reflexivity and interiority. In this conflation of references both individual and collective, we see the ways that interiority is not quite as hermetically sealed as one might imagine. Likewise, is the room bedroom or studio; the food for sustenance or artistic study; and are the plants inside or outside of the frames? These are investigations into the ways public and private are entangled. Much is made visible, such as the subject’s nudity, but what is being revealed?

By showing the ways that visibility is not equivalent to knowing, Dunn is illuminating the artistic possibilities of mobilizing interiority. When the paintings remain emotionally elusive, the viewer must bring their own associations to the scenes. However, within this contemplation of projection and interiority, Dunn is also making an argument about the production of art itself. Here, I refer to the fact that sprinkled throughout the exhibit are paintings that allude to different stages of artistic production. There are details in the works of artistic practices—art supplies, latex gloves, paper, and canvas—as well as explicit scenes in which the subject faces a blank canvas, such as Basement Studio (2022), which depicts two men among the detritus of an art studio—the orange walls have images taped to them and the floor is covered in paint. One of the men is nude and dons a latex glove to move a wood panel while the other plays with a paint brush and extends his legs long beyond the confines of his chair. This is not a conventional image of art production or of a relationship between artist and model, but one that, in fact, shows the numerous sources of inspiration for an image: sitter, romantic partner, studio, mood, time of day, and historical referent. These elements of pastiche are reproduced in the different painting styles and techniques presented. In Desktop (2023) we see the back of the artist as he faces an unfinished canvas. He is sitting on a table with a bowl of water beside him and a jar full of paint brushes to his back; his head is bowed suggesting deep concentration. That art is its own complex play with interiority is made apparent, but so too is the artist as queer figure who brings the outside in while remaining opaque. Night Pictures, then, offers reflections on queerness as interiority, projection, and art with a plethora of sources to draw upon.