William Dunlap's Old Tricks and New Dogs

essay by Jay Williams



(above: William Dunlap, White Dog Allegory. 2005. Courtesy of the artist)


Our confusion about whether the dog is part of nature or culture is probably a function of the length and depth of the relationship. People and dogs have lived in such close proximity for thousands of years that people think of them as both human and non-human. According to Mark Derr, ancient hominids shared food and shelter with wolves at least 150,000 years ago, and by 14,000 years ago modern human beings were raising dogs as a separate species. [4] Considering how closely we Southerners live with our dogs, how can we better understand their significance? What can we learn from pondering their images in Bill Dunlap's paintings?

Just as dogs as a species form a bridge between human culture and nature, they invite the viewers of Dunlap's art to orient themselves within the natural world represented by the vast illusionistic spaces of his landscapes. Coming into some absolute relationship with the vastness of nature, as represented by paintings such as Delta Dog Trot, might be an impossible task. The dog represents the possibility of creating a relationship with that larger reality on a scale that we can understand. Theologian Stephen Webb asserted that the human-dog relationship "provides an opportunity for feelings of devotion that border on the sacred," concluding that "dogs belong to the imaginary, the symbolic, the realm of fantasy."[5] Dunlap's Narcissus Reflects on the Starnes House as Audubon's Osprey Flies Away reminds us that the journey into spiritual wholeness involves traveling inward to a landscape of symbols.

The images of dog and landscape carry related symbolic meanings. The image of sky, fields, and trees is not the real thing, not nature itself, but a reference to our sensory, cerebral, and spiritual constructs associated with nature. In art history landscape painting has traditionally carried spiritual, if not outright religious, meaning. Max Friedlander observed: "Since the world as Creation, or rather as the result of Creation, was glorified in veneration of the Creator, especially in the seventeenth century, it remained hallowed even when the relations between Creation and Creator became open to doubt. . . . The personal longing for belief, the ever active need to worship by looking turned to landscape."[6] It is worth noting that William Dunlap has explored the Southern landscape throughout his career as a means of exploring a host of ethical and values-oriented questions about our region, his paintings in the present series being a subset of this larger grouping. If most Southerners, being religious by choice, would agree that God pronounced creation "good," then the things of nature within our region continue to be in right relationship with their creator. Because of their traditional roles as guides, trail-finders, and trackers, Dunlap's dogs symbolize the contemporary quest to orient the South's increasingly urbanized culture within (and not outside of) the goodness of nature.


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