Editor's note: The following essay was rekeyed and reprinted on April 14, 2006, in Resource Library with permission of the author and the Morris Museum of Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay please contact the Morris Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:



 

William Dunlap's Old Tricks and New Dogs

essay by Jay Williams

 



 

(above: William Dunlap, White Dog (detail), 2003-2004. Courtesy of the artist)

 

At first glance William Dunlap's paintings of dogs in the Southern landscape appear to be classic views of fields, forests, farmhouses, and skies, with the addition of familiar Southern hounds that give them a regional flavor. But linger in front of one of these paintings and it dawns on us that there are no human figures in view. Instead of depicting people at work or play, Dunlap gives us dogs. The rustic rural folk who inhabit many historical landscape paintings as naturally as cattle and horses are nowhere to be found. Facing a painting such as Dog Trot, we read it as empty because we see no human activity in progress and we feel a sense of separation. Sometimes Dunlap's canines make eye contact with us, but just as often they play or nose around in the foreground and middle ground of the composition. Why is it vaguely disturbing to view one of the artist's curious dogs investigating the Southern landscape? We might look quizzically at the dog and ask -- as Timmy might have queried the too-intelligent Lassie -- "What are you trying to tell us?"

The uneasiness that accompanies Dunlap's canine subject matter is like the feeling we might experience on waking from an uncanny dream. We recognize intuitively that these images must have metaphorical connotations, levels of meaning beyond an inventory of subject matter and stylistic traits. If we see allegorical qualities in Dunlap's animal images, it may be that his art helps us own a visceral kinship with them, without turning them into cartoonish dogs like Pluto or Goofy that mimic human behavior. Dunlap's dogs can easily accommodate such symbolic associations, but like all successful symbolic images, these canines resist easy interpretation.

Historically, the dog has symbolized opposing, complementary functions -- both gate-keeping and guidance in the afterlife and spirit world as seen in Greek and Egyptian mythology, and warring and healing in ancient Celtic lore. Similarly, the culture of the South embraces both the repellant, eat-you-alive junkyard dog and the cherished dog who, according to one bumper sticker, ranks above the wife and just below the gun. The "x" scrawled across the offending canine in Dunlap's Bad Dog is an indication of the paradoxical nature of the adjective. James William Jordan observed that Southerners kept dogs for numerous reasons and treated them with a bewildering combination of affection and neglect, depending upon whether the dog's positive or negative behaviors were accentuated -- protection, loyalty, and companionship versus scavenging, aggression, and filthiness. He concluded that by delving into the dog's role and status in our regional culture "we may refine our understanding of the Southern folk world view." [1]

The scavenging, rutting, or threatening dog is one who brings the wild and uncontrolled energy of nature within the boundaries of our society. Our response to this untamed force sometimes takes the form of terror and revulsion, like that of a hiker on a country road confronted by a farmer's snarling mongrel. Some deep layer of Southern culture must contain a residue of the Old Testament fear of primeval nature: "Deliver my soul from the sword, my life from the power of the dog!"[2] We can hardly believe that the fearful dog of this psalm is the same species of creature who waited faithfully for Ulysses to return from his Odyssey, his devoted hound Argos who could die in peace only after his loyalty had been rewarded by his master's homecoming. [3] Depending upon the viewer's assumptions about nature and culture, the meaning of the dog image can shift.


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