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Kyle Dunn’s shadowy exuberance

Contributed by by Margaret McCann / The theme of nocturnal interiors in Kyle Dunn’s solo show “Night Pictures” at PPOW highlights his fascinating handling of light and shadow. A pared-down technical vocabulary also shows less can be more. Absent in these paintings are cushiony bas-relief surfaces that can distract from his ingenuity on the flat plane, where illusionism and abstract pattern contend. Blending realism and Synthetic Cubism – using found or computer-generated imagery in applications like Photoshop, rather than paper and glue – cartoony simplification plays off precise description, shifting between levity and intensity. Although Dunn’s work is imitation-based — rather than perception-based — it shares tonal and architectonic sensibilities with that of Gabriel Laderman, who advocated exploring art history during the Cold War, when figurative painting and art historical retrospection in painting were regarded with suspicion or contempt – and his antecedent Andre Derain. Dunn’s smooth acrylic layers, which require thoughtful execution, create a feeling of completeness. Yet narrative innuendo increases with longer looking. Astute interactions of form and content turn viewing into an interactive game of cause and effect.

Basement Studio looks as bright and clear as a computer monitor, its crisp order as upbeat as Francis Picabia’s Physical Culture. The tight, complex, shared space suggests interpersonal stress, approaching that of Max Beckmann’s Night, which combined Cubism, New Objectivity, and Expressionism to convey the claustrophobic chaos of WWI. While Beckmann’s pictorial puzzle immediately conveys suffering, domestic tension is slowly enacted in Dunn’s. Under an arcing shadow, a kneeling man pulls a panel down toward the other, whose resistance is carved out by a moat-like, curve-backed chair. Gripping a paintbrush and leaning away, the strained yet slightly twisting pose resembles a type, flipped right, Tamara de Lempicka employed. Counterpoised like Balthus’s Children or Guido Reni’s Atalanta and Hippomenes, the pair’s intimacy echoes the couples of Hugh Steers. But instead of a burden shared, each seems in the other’s way. Incongruous floor zones underline divergence, while lateral shadows intertwining with exacting wood knots bring visual entertainment. Strong red from the sides portends receding or looming passion, which an accidental still life is resplendent in. Like flowers, demonstrations of refinement ease compositional pressures as they stop time: an old master reproduction and 3D digital rendering that hint at the artist’s method, two pigeons cuddling in a soft moonscape (probably cloying if less discreet), a dropped plastic glove evocative of Max Klinger’s romantic obsession.

The Hunt’s eccentric pose recalls Parmigianino’s Madonna of the Long Neck or Caravaggio’s Love Conquers All, the latter’s wings, arrows, and impish smile cuing the Cupid narrative. Here, the figure’s turned-away face offers only a sniff test, which along with darkness and drink suggest he is dressing for an evening out. More nude than naked, his unnaturally smooth limbs resemble a mannequin’s. Dramatic chiaroscuro conveys seriousness, but with time his energetic, precarious perch grows as awkward, weightless, and lively as a Rococo porcelain figurine, such as Franz Bustelli’s Shy, Happy Soldier. Other visual conundrums, intentional even if by default, offer diversion. The knee, a challenging body part for figure painters, looks painfully squashed against the picture plane. Boot and foot show different spatial planes separately, but simultaneously lock into flat alignment. Like a cartoon character, an anthropomorphized penis before a pocket mirror generates agency, vanity, expectation, and doubt. The anatomy of a dog’s hindquarters is more specific than the man’s, his tail-wagging departure anticipating the night’s quest.

Before anyone can leave, the pace is slowed by radiant compartments of detail. Emerging like fireflies from the shade, each proffers hypnotic surprise – reflective doorknob, exacting light on a stack of books, glowing phone and reflection echoing the moonlit sky. The end table’s ad hoc still life looks thrown together as though by an unprepared art teacher: mascara and small cosmetic or medicinal bottles, orange slices spruced up with a toothpick, a cocktail in a frosted crystal glass one might gladly stumble upon at Goodwill. Moments of inviting specificity communicate gathering and lingering more than hunting. The waxing shadow across Brueghel’s Hunters in the Snow alludes to its challenges; maybe he will stay in from the cold.

Lighting, design, and scale are all lucidly considered in the equally theatrical Paper Angel. The figure’s individuality moves the image from genre painting into the expectations of portraiture. We view him in a mirror parallel to the picture plane that omits us, nudging us into identification with him. Unclothed and crouching on the floor in a comfortable squat (common in parts of the world without public seating), he seems vulnerable yet relaxed. His averted gaze is directed toward another impromptu gathering of objects – books, eggs, scrolls of paper, containers, citrus, and cigarettes. Maybe it’s stuff he’s leaving behind; maybe he is an apparition or memory. A large compositional arabesque repeats the smaller curve of his back, his pose reminiscent of Van Gogh’s Sorrow, or Picasso’s casualties in La Vie. Streetlight illuminates the protagonist as on a stage, where he waits, neither sitting nor standing, half spotlit and half in shadow – amusing shades of Hamlet’s indecision. Changeable light throughout the room echoes uncertainty. It directly strikes a branch, metalwork, wood floor and walls, reflects off cracked linoleum, fruit, eyeglasses and across his back, and filters opaquely through a papered window and t-shirt – no surface is untouched. Like an infinity metaphor, the diagonal rhyming of plant to tree to angel completes a figure eight. The image is both forthcoming and mystifying.

Slumbering under a rich teal, beside a softly falling, open book, pushed close to us in the foreground, a salmon-colored figure in Sawn Man displays a tenderness typical of sleeping children or pre-Raphaelite swooners. Dunn evades slippage into sentimentality through astute negotiations of form and content. Sober geometry compresses volume into sharp, almost brittle shapes on the picture plane. These are woven both into the film noir shadow pattern surreptitiously ensnaring the scene like a net, and into diagonal lines creating depth, where specific edges and tones define spatial levels logically. Confined to two dimensions, Dunn’s sculptural understanding translates into unusual contrasts – flat hand against volumetric face, sensitively-hued board against protruding thighs. Plays on words – of two unsynchronized, phallic-shaped, cuckoo clock pinecone weights, and the title’s two halves – amusingly infer separation or balance. Dunn’s scenes of homoerotic private life deftly render the personal political. Comfortable in his own skin, his work charms and convinces with sophistication and relatability, rather than testing the viewer with shocking iconography.

Dunn’s intricate engagement with detail – normal among men in France, Italy, and Japan, to name a few – doesn’t jibe with traditional American rugged individualism. Abstract Expressionism’s swashbuckling example discouraged such particularity; some teachers back then tore up “precious” or “fussy” student drawings out of tough love. AbEx reflected in part America’s large open spaces, roads full of potential rather than history. But contemporary painters like Dunn show the virtues of looking the wrong way through the telescope at nothing larger than everyday life. Minutiae is incorporated into solid structure, as in the work of Paul Cadmus and George Tooker, who learned from Italians like Signorelli and Piero. Gay struggle and pride kept their articulated social or magic realism in sight, particularly the provocations of Cadmus. While Philip Guston, whose influences include many Italians such as Giorgio De Chirico, and David Siqueiros, journeyed from social realism into AbEx, then merged the experiences in powerful late work, they stuck to exacting egg tempera. Dunn’s complex constructions are similarly honed; appreciation for the micro realms of scientific study and computers have perhaps helped painters, including those who teach, shed shame over indulging in the diminutive with small brushes.

Downward Dog shows Dunn’s equally unfettered approach to subject. Easygoing insignificance – just a dude and his rambunctious dog doing yoga – softens the otherwise strange, Balthus-like pose and shadowy mood. The man’s gesture is a compelling mix of exercise, fatigue, elegance, and possible distress, and we can wonder about the title’s double meaning. But before we can consider anything deeper, or about the mischievous placement of ash tray and wineglass, captivating zones of description once again interrupt. A pink satin suit jacket glistens within the enveloping foreground shade, softening canine goofiness and framing the horizontal band of information above. There, tablet light streams into its reflection in shirt folds one could get lost in for a while. To the right an intricate cubistic intersection of flatness and depth pleasurably confounds: straight, deepening shadow stripes meet delicate hues of cigarette butts, which visually sink behind the calf above, though they are in front. In a circular flow.

Prizing feeling wasn’t an option in the hard-nosed ideological arena of Laderman’s figurative formalism. Decoration and personal expression, now widely cyber shared, have been boosted by feminism, gay culture and metro-sexuality, culinary arts, home improvement, etc. Neo-Expressionist painters like Georg Baselitz, who pushed through “deep depression” to process Germany’s WWII legacy, helped revitalize passion in figuration. Baselitz sees his paintings as “battles” in the advance of Hegelian progress, requiring “brutality … against what already exists.” Anything less than a vanquishing attitude toward precedent, or anything under-sold, doesn’t count; hence “women don’t paint very well.” Resistance to today’s less hegemonic art world of different demographic perspectives is arguably toxic masculinity and nostalgia; deference to the almighty market’s measure might mask doubt or guilt about success. Certainly it’s okay today to mine the past while focusing on the present rather than novelty. But Baselitz’s implicit lament about the fade of romantic heroism from art and life is cogent, especially given automation’s threat to overpower and diminish human experience. Dunn’s work offers optimism on that front as well. While he has yet to fully explore color or textural expression, his intimate human realms show how the artful use of technology – once linear perspective, projection, photography, and now CGI – can enhance painting without deadening feeling. It will be worth watching this subtly exuberant and discerning young painter follow his ambitions.