Painters Give Their Works a Space for Conversation at the Tip Top
This May, Patrick Dunfey, an artist who is also the Head of Exhibitions Design and Planning at the Hood Museum of Art, was visiting the Tip Top Building in White River Junction when he ran into a woman who’d lost her poodle. Dunfey volunteered to help her find the dog (which turned up later in another part of the building), and as he wandered down a corridor on the second floor he came across a door that opened onto an empty space.
It was six in the evening, and light poured in through south-facing windows and large square skylights. Dunfey, who lives with his wife, Amy Dunfey, in Hanover, had long been making his own art in the basement of their house, a place without any natural light. This was the polar opposite, a place where, he said, “the light endlessly moves.”
Dunfey now has a space, 225 Gallery, where he can paint, and where he can exhibit both his own work and that of others. The studio is not an exhibition space, per se, Dunfey said. But it’s possible that he will open it in the future for other shows.
To inaugurate 225 Gallery, Dunfey is currently exhibiting six of his paintings in conjunction with seven paintings by Enrico Riley, who grew up in Richmond, Va., and graduated from Dartmouth in 1995 with a B.A. in visual studies. Riley went on to get an M.F.A. from Yale, returned to Dartmouth to teach in 2001 and is now a professor in the college’s Studio Art Department.
The two men have known each other since the early 2000s and although they get together fairly regularly to play guitar, they have not previously exhibited their work side by side. In this exhibition at least, the two men have very different styles, and work on a different scale.
Riley’s canvases are 5 feet by 4 feet, give or take, while Dunfey’s are more compact, measuring from 15 inches long to 1 to 2 feet across. The interplay between the two men’s works could be called a conversation, or you might call it a musical back-and-forth, with Riley and Dunfey trading lines and riffs. What compels the attention at first glance are Riley’s paintings — and not only because of their scale.
In this summer of our discontent, the paintings resonate with menace and anxiety, and speak to the ever present issue of America’s long, tangled history of racial division. The killings of black men and police in the past two years have provoked outrage, fear and grief, while the events of the last two weeks have provoked commentators to chase analogies to 1968, when the U.S. came apart at the seams.
Riley’s works show disembodied hands and feet bound by thick coils of rope, ropes hanging from tree branches, a body lying somewhat hidden in grass, heavy, menacing gun barrels that poke in from outside the frame, brass horns that may sound an alarm, the bristling tails of dogs that may be tracking humans. All against an intense blue background. The force of the imagery comes from implication and what is not explicitly shown. The viewer supplies the rest of whatever narrative comes to mind.
“What I guess I saw right away was a completely contemporaneous take on — it’s not history, it’s the emotions of history,” Dunfey said.
Riley began these works in the spring of 2015. He points out that he has not relied on specific images or incidents for these paintings. Rather, he’s drawing, Riley said, on hundreds of years of history, and art history, in making the images, and is not relying specifically or exclusively on imagery depicting the subjugation of Africans brought by force to the Americas.
Put it this way: Riley’s paintings are just as pertinent in another context, where political instability, torture and violence have led to thousands of deaths — Chechnya, Syria, Iraq and Stalin’s Soviet Union come to mind. History is filled with accounts of the barbaric things humans do to each other, Riley said. “No one group has a monopoly on suffering.”
And art history has no shortage of work that depicts human brutality: Bosch, Brueghel, Goya, Manet and Picasso, to name a few, have all dealt with the excesses of war. This is the first time, however, that Riley, whose previous works are rooted in abstraction, has made paintings that “deal overtly with race and violence.” He doesn’t want to be put in the position of having to speak for an entire race or gender, he said; nor does he want to be pigeonholed as having issued a specific political statement about life in the U.S. But after the past two years of a seemingly endless loop of shootings and the instant proliferation and pervasiveness of images of death on the internet and in the media, the subject began to ring an insistent bell in the way that ideas begin to push forward in an artist’s mind. “Never have I had those issues in the forefront of my work, but as an artist you always reserve the right for these unexpected changes to happen and go to them,” Riley said.
Riley began with images of people diving into water. “I had no idea where that would lead me,” he said. He’s always liked painting rope, he said, which led to seeing rope that binds, which made him think of the possibility of turning rope into horns. Human skin can be transformed into animal skin, a branch can turn into the leg of a horse. “As an artist it’s your willingness to recognize when something is happening or changing. Do I allow myself to go there? Does this slight change signal that this is something that I should follow? ... I let more and more come in,” Riley said.
Dunfey’s paintings, of pieces of wheels, initials carved into wood, silhouettes of heads, letters bound in ribbon, provide a subtle counterpoint to Riley’s work. They are tucked in next to Riley’s work, and seem to give them a nudge. And they poke at the viewer, too. “The more you sit with them, the more you see the interplay between them. I think that’s really satisfying,” Riley said. “How the work came together and how it might work was part of what interested us,” Dunfey said. Dunfey’s paintings, which are a mixture of ink, dry pigment and acrylic, echo with things unsaid or stored away, of departures and empty rooms and humans left behind, of situations deliberately or unconsciously left unresolved.
He pulled out other paintings, not in the show, that depict money, fish skeletons placed next to corn husks or knotted ropes. They have titles such as Distaff, Missals, Academy, Type, or Homestead. Dunfey begins with words, usually. “My painting is not so much influenced by art but through writing and reading,” he said. “The title will somehow precede the work.”
A word or phrase will come to mind. He carries it around for a while, and then might write it down. “I’m quietly sitting with that word for a while, and then the image comes together,” Dunfey said.
“At the outset, Patrick’s work might be quieter and a little more indirect, but his work gets to an emotional place where I’m trying to go with my work,” Riley said. “His paintings are cropped or incomplete in a really great way.”
Dunfey, who grew up in Manchester, NH, received a B.F.A. from the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, and moved with his wife to the Upper Valley from New York in 1985. Prior to taking the position at the Hood in 2003 he worked as a graphic designer. In the 1980s, he sold a number of works through New York galleries. But it’s been some time, he said, since he has had a gallery show. “I’m happy to have so much of my work with me now,” Dunfey said. For all the paintings he’s finished there are others that he returns to again and again. “I’ve come to like the idea of having all this unfinished work. It used to bother me, but now it’s a good thing, instead of, I’m exhausted, my ideas are shot,” Dunfey added. For years, he said, he thought he didn’t want to make larger paintings but that was because, he now realizes, his home studio didn’t permit it.
While the Hood Museum is closed during its three-year expansion, Dunfey is working on the digitization of the museum collections, and planning both the design of the exhibitions that mark the reopening of the museum, and the design of the Hood Museum Downtown, which opens in September in the old Amidon Jewelers space on South Main Street in Hanover.
For his part, Riley heads in September to Italy to take up a residency at the American Academy in Rome. This spring, he was awarded the academy’s distinguished Rome Prize, given annually to American artists and scholars who show significant talent. The appointment, which runs nearly a year, allows him to paint and live in the city with no obligations other than to his work. He plans to use the time to study the Renaissance masters. Whether Riley will continue in his current vein he doesn’t yet know.
But the paintings on view at 225 Gallery serve a larger purpose. “One of the stronger feelings I’ve had is that these aren’t about me. They’re broader than my individual experience,” Riley said.
“There’s so much silence, and this work is not silent,” Dunfey said.
from Valley News, July 21, 2016
Patrick Dunfey and Joseph Santore at Edward Thorp Gallery
Although Joseph Santore and Patrick Dunfey share an obsessive appreciation for detail, they approach figurative painting from different perspectives.Whereas Santore paints huge allegorical panoramas filled with seemingly inconsequential particulars, Dunfey paints small, elegant works that focus exclusively on the details, thus eliminating any broader context. Both artist concentrate on subjects that appear strangely familiar yet oddly elusive. Santore provides so much information that his art becomes a kind of visual overload; Dunfey’s work is so minimal that he has had to provide a written handout as a key into the work’s context. Both artists draw us into their work by their indirectness—Santore by virtue of his puzzling narrative and Dunfey by the oddness and suggestiveness of his fragments.
In Santore’s huge (11 by 22 feet) painting Tintoretto’s Studio, a naked man and a woman in a robe sit together across the studio from a seated man—presumably the artist—who stares straight out at the viewer. There is an abundance of detail in the picture, yet the narrative remains incomplete; Santore provides all of the visual evidence but resists telling a story. The walls, floors, and ceiling of the studio are splotched, stained, and cluttered, and the models look sad—or perhaps just exhausted.
Similarly, Dunfey’s small-scale paintings provide glimpses of the American past that conceal as much, or more, than they reveal. Parlor shows a diagonal portion of a draped purple curtain and a small section of wood panel below a bright orange wall. It is an intimately skewed vision of a public room in a private home from a bygone era. Seemingly trivial fragments, such as the ominous close-up of tin cans in Terror, provide strange views into the past by forcing us to focus on details that usually fade into the background.
from ARTnews, October 1993
Art in America
Patrick Dunfey at Damon Brandt
Patrick Dunfey's recent show consisted of nine paintings, each devoted to one luminous article or arrangement of things. Dunfey portrays the apparatus of adventures that took place in the past of this continent: a section of a mast from a 19th-century ship, a deed, a crown, a section of a coin, a painted baton, a carved bamboo pole. He intends each image to evoke a moment from the journals of that time.
I feel tempted to call these objects sculpture; their painted existence within the frame is rough-hewn and mythic. While not cartoon-like or primitive, each piece has a simple directness that seems pretty fetishistic. As uniforms aren't quite clothes, neither are Dunfey's items actually "things": they're more on the order of imagined relics. Each one invites us to guess its weight, how old it is and so on. Dunfey counts on the naïve appreciation we reserve for the cast-off pieces of other people's lives—a notebook found at a concert, say, or the trophies that fill a junk shop. In the case of these reverenced things, it's a whole culture Dunfey sentimentalizes.
We're used to Dunfey's kind of shorthand in cinema.: as the captain writes in his log, the camera holds on the bobbing compass. There's a luxury in an enduring gaze at an object in a closed universe; it's like poetry. More loaded is the subject of a painting called Glory, a simple crown radiating on a blackbackground reminiscent of Ross Bleckner. The image sent me running to my dictionary to look up metonymy again."To the Crown!" cries the leader of the trader pirates, and the men lift their glasses as one. The humor in this work is intended, I think. In the context of a life of adventure, the power of that one burning little emblem is perhaps equivalent to a 20th-century happy face (or earlier, to a cross). By naming this work Glory, Dunfey illuminates one of Fredric Jameson's formulations: "The larger concept of irony is at one with the general spirit of idealism itself."
Dunfey's titles are evocative and directive, yet viewing his mall of "symbols" we slam up against a wall, that of the past, whose meaning we can only guess at. Campaign, for example, is a roseate depiction of the foot of a mast, though this piece of timber may mark the end of one delirious sailor's voyage, death being the inevitable boundary of travel and adventure—and everything else. We are not lured so much by the painting's sensuous surface as by its stubborn thereness. The voyage of Patrick Dunfey holds many such blunt pleasures.
from Art in America, December 1988
To be truthful, painting has not been a primary influence in my life. The foremost influence, in that it inspires a desire for me to create, is literature. Reading is how I start the day." Patrick Dunfey is carefully gauging what he can legitimately claim to be true about his creative process. "My painting begins at the point at which I put the book down and stare ahead. I find that if you pursue the imagination directly, you lose it." For Dunfey, books proffer a kind of nature, available for study and conducive to daydreaming.
Sometimes literature provides immediate inspiration for subject matter, and sometimes not. In any event, the most compelling of his small discordant canvases—at once forthright and enigmatic—are not explained away once their literary source is revealed.
In Frame (1987), for instance, a quaint metal armature, bent at the joints and suspended against a more abstract frame, suggests a mechanism that has taken possession of a mind. Dunfey had read that Meriwether Lewis, on his 1804 expedition with William Clark to find the source of the Missouri River and to survey what lay beyond, took along an iron boat frame he had invented. When improperly cured buffalo hides failed to keep the boat watertight, Lewis promptly crushed his invention. Dunfey, fascinated with the fact that Lewis "dragged the cumbersome thing along only to abandon it," set about creating Frame. But it isn't necessary to know the painting's historical basis to sense its psychological content. Dunfey's dexterous use of ambiguous images—the coupling of frames, one as figure and the other as ground, and the appearance of an intervening shadow—express the burden of invention, whether artistic or scientific.
"One theme common to my work," says Dunfey, "is the (notion of the) outpost of civilization; moments of tremendous change and crisis expressed not as a factual reality but as a poetic affinity to the emotions." For just this reason he admires Joseph Conrad's stories, and he also responds to the writer's approach to his craft. "Because English was his second language, he had to work harder, and in working harder, he turned up more than if he had been able to think in a directly literary fashion. I feel an affinity to that," Dunfey explains.
Working harder may be the cornerstone of thirty-year-old Dunfey's career as a painter. "I became interested in painting," he says, "when I got past childhood talent." Raised in Manchester, New Hampshire, Dunfey demonstrated a gift for drawing as a child, but the draftsmanship—"the linear approach to things"—that buoyed him through youth proved insufficient in college. At Rhode Island School of Design, his doubts about whether he could master painting led Dunfey to take a year off. After his leave, he fared better, spending a final year in the school's honors program in Rome. But during four subsequent years struggling as a painter in New York, Dunfey rarely went to galleries. "Until the last few years," he admits, "I had a very defensive approach to painting." He says that only recently did he discover and artistic "affinity with the painting of the 1920s and '30s in America and Europe."
Consciously or not, much about Dunfey's style suggests metaphysical homespun. Ordinary things are denatured and become enigmatic, leaden, or menacing. These basic forms mix sensation and feeling in unexpected and eerie ways. In Bully (1987), a punching bag is cropped by an illusionistic frame—or from another viewpoint, a de Chirico-style mannequin hunches against a flattened space. Homely yet somehow overbearing, the punching bag-mannequin has less volume than the illusionistic wood grain, which is depicted as though it were physically substantial. A simple configuration, the painting nonetheless unsettles, its ambiguity undermining the commonplace identifications we make each day of our lives. As in the best ofDunfey's canvases, the object gains stubborn visual presence by steadfastly removing itself from the obviousness of mere illustration.
Dunfey's objects—envelopes, books, wheels, leaves, ships' masts, wigs—constitute a catalogue of simple things from the simpler age of preindustrial America. And, employing a strong graphic sense, he favors colors typical of the American folk palette: dull brick, ivory, pale sere leaf, pale sky blue—tints always eroded in composition by smoky black shadows. In fact, the American strain in Dunfey's art has less to do with evidence of the dour forms and expressionist overtones of early American modernism than with the blunt signs of an Americana that predates the art of the 1920s by more than a century.
In Dunfey's paintings 19th-century folk artists and 20th-century modernists encounter each other and seem to get on uncommonly well. "Erastus Salisbury Field, I'd like you to meet Giorgio de Chirico; Ammi Phillips, I'd like you to meet Max Ernst." In Whig (1988) and in Deed (1987), such sources have been totally absorbed and re-formed with a quirky flair all Dunfey's own. His maturing art owes a lot to his firmly placed subjectivity.
It may come as little surprise, then, that after his stint in New York, this young but focused artist returned to New England to live. It was an accident, Dunfey notes, that his wife's family house in Hanover, New Hampshire, brought him back to his home state. He could imagine himself elsewhere, but elsewhere in New England—quiet and affordable, affording him time to paint. And to read.
from ARTnews, Summer 1988
Los Angeles Times
Patrick Dunfey at Pence Gallery
In small, dry, linear paintings, New Hampshire artist Patrick Dunfey borrows from the 19th-century American sign-painter’s craft to isolate homespun artifacts and give them ironically nostalgic references.
“Commerce” is the teasing title for the image of a crudely made wagon wheel dangling a red ribbon. In “Crest,” a leafy cutting garnishes a door-knocker decorated with small red and blue balls that cast flat gold-circle reflections. A glimpse of the inside of a boat draped with an unused sail (“Scuttle”) alludes self-consciously to poetic notions of the seafaring life.
This idiosyncratic repertoire of objects-as-symbols has a close-lipped, introverted side that plugs into the American painting tradition as well as the contemporary itch to dissect ordinary things–an unusual and appealing combo. (Pence Gallery, 908 Colorado Ave., to April 2.)
from Los Angeles Times, March 18, 1988
Art & Antiques
Patrick Dunfey at Damon Brandt Gallery
Patrick Dunfey used to paint big landscapes he "could crawl inside of." When he left the city, the escapist element in his art left, too, and his paintings became smaller and humbler, with subjects like money, a post, and Coil (below). Some objects have attached meanings, others are bland, so Dunfey does the democratic thing: loaded images are deflated, and meek ones get a little more limelight than they're used to. At the Damon Brandt Gallery in New York, February 13–March 12.
from Art & Antiques Magazine, February 1988