Book cover of Dunlap’s 2006 retrospective art survey book
If Andrew Wyeth had migrated to the Delta region of Mississippi, some of his paintings may have turned out looking like those of William Dunlap. Folks not from the central deep South will usually associate that term, the ‘Delta,’ with the outflow of the great river south of New Orleans in several branched outlets. Yet, the term, the ‘Delta,’ in the mid and deep South refers to the region abutting the Mississippi River south of Memphis, bordered by Arkansas and Mississippi. Historically, and until the present, it has been characterized as one of the poorest regions of our nation and also known as the birthplace of the Blues, a fact which may not be coincidental. Lush with vegetation in a multitude of vibrant greens during the summer, the Delta has a stark beauty in the winter, especially where trees have been removed for farmland. Usually not cold enough for lasting snow, gray skies often complement the gray trunks and limbs of deciduous trees, as well as of cypresses in the swamps and by the river.
William Dunlap’s paintings, particularly the more recent ones, capture well the landscapes of this mostly rural part of ‘flyover’ America. As his artwork often depicts, the low-on-the-horizon winter sun pokes through bands of dark clouds, where in the evening a surprising warm glow can enliven an otherwise flat and bleak landscape. Dunlap lived in many places in the Old South while growing up, but the north central hill country of Mississippi, and Webster County, remained a homing point connected with his grandparents. Yet, I find his most evocative paintings are of the comparatively flat alluvial terrain on the east bank of ‘the American Nile’ south of Memphis.
Dunlap grew up feeling like he had lived in two eras of history, one being the late 19th century whose social legacy permeated the circumstances of his youth, and the other stemming from his having been born at the end of WWII, having come of age in the 1960’s. Images in many of his paintings reflect this paradoxical tension between old world cultural patterns and practices, and new world adventurous explorative freedom.
The dogs in his paintings reflect aspects of this dynamic. Dunlap’s grandfather bred and raised Walker hounds (most memorably represented in the top painting), which are often depicted as his central subjects within expansive landscapes. According to J. Richard Gruber, they are “used as a surrogate for man (and himself) in his works.” Here, in his choice of subject matter, we find another rural ‘old south’ in tension with an emerging new world. It is most markedly suggested in one of his paintings where he places a power plant cooling tower, releasing steam, behind a rural farmstead fronting an open field (not depicted).
This may help us appreciate the term Dunlap coined to describe his approach to painting, ‘hypothetical realism,’ a term which I think applies equally to the work of Georgia O’Keeffe. Remarkably, Dunlap basically taught himself to paint, and focussed his early work on Rembrandt and other ‘Old Masters,’ while also displaying the evident influence of modern masters such as Larry Rivers, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. The effect of some of these more recent artists’ work can be seen in two of the paintings above, by the visual inclusion in the skyline of the regional names, Delta and Arkansas, in label-stylized fonts preferred by many Pop Art painters. Once again, we encounter a dynamic interplay between historically traditional approaches to representational painting and the 20th century reactionary revolt against them.
Dunlap is a truly gifted painter, both in terms of what he has been able to accomplish, but also in terms of his encompassing creative vision. Internet images, upon which I have relied here, only begin to suggest the expanse of his creative perspective.
For those who might want to see more of Dunlaps paintings, as well as learn more about him and them, I commend his coffee table book, Dunlap (which, through Amazon and or other sources may still be available, and which provides a much more accessible resource for appreciating the painter’s work: (https://smile.amazon.com/Dunlap-William/dp/1578069041/ref=sr_1_5?crid=1YS7GNY6ZE2AS&keywords=dunlap+william+dunlap&qid=1654915393&s=books&sprefix=%2Cstripbooks%2C91&sr=1-5).
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