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He may have impeccable manners and a love for quoting Faulkner, but William Dunlap refuses to be pigeonholed as a Southern artist. His paintings and other works, which span more than three decades since his graduation from the University of Mississippi in 1969 with a master’s in fine arts, incorporate a crispness that’s distinctly American.
Dunlap’s career thus far, which includes having works in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Corcoran Gallery of Art, is the subject of a new publication by the University Press of Mississippi titled, simply, Dunlap. The coffee-table book offers a biography but focuses on the landscapes, dogs, and Rembrandt portraits that dominate the oeuvre of the self-described “hypothetical realist.”
Mississippi-born but a resident of McLean, Va., since 1980, Dunlap retains an accent that strongly distinguishes the syllables of “Luddite” and lops the “l” off “school.” The content of his speech is often self-effacing, and Dunlap does not like to take credit for the book—only for suggesting the general idea. “I basically did fact-checking and color corrections…I just got out of the way,” he says. The 62-year-old artist’s only guideline for the book was for a thematic rather than chronological arrangement. “I’ve been doing the Rembrandt thing since I was in graduate school, and I’m still doing it. The themes that prevail—the dogs, the symbols, the landscapes—they kinda run together.”
“What was happening in the visual arts when I got out of graduate school was the reductivist thing, the minimalist thing. You better not have an idea; you better not have a story,” Dunlap says. “One of the reasons reductivism never made any sense to me—why I couldn’t buy into that Bauhaus ‘less is more’—is because in the American South I grew up in…[w]e always had less. I can assure you less ain’t more.”
Instead, Dunlap reaches further back for his inspiration. “[W]hat I’m doing is grounded in the 19th-century luminists, those landscape painters who saw America as a vast wilderness,” he says. “I don’t. I see it as overcivilized, bought and sold, surveyors have been everywhere…so we’ve chopped the place up pretty good, but you still get little vestiges of it.”
Dunlap, who also maintains a residence in Florida, has had plenty of chances to draw from the various scenery along the East Coast. A stint in Manhattan, however, provided as much distraction as it did inspiration. “In New York there’s a fall fashion in the art world, there’s a spring fashion in the art world. I’m glad not to be caught up in all of that,” Dunlap says. “I couldn’t do any work up there. I just had too damn much fun.” By comparison, Dunlap’s adopted home provides just the right atmosphere.
“Washington’s a great town for me to work,” he says. “William Faulkner said all Mississippians secretly aspire to be Virginians. And it’s true in my case.” —Kim Rinehimer
Dunlap discusses and signs copies of Dunlap at 4 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 7, at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW. Free. (202) 364-1919.