William Dunlap's Old Tricks and New Dogs

essay by Jay Williams



(above: William Dunlap, Jude the Obscure (detail), circa 1976. Courtesy of the artist) 


We may be tempted to approach Dunlap's paintings as we would pre-twentieth century landscapes or genre paintings, but we must be careful in interpreting their meaning, because the relationship between our predominantly urban Southern culture and images of nature has changed radically during the last two hundred years. The looming cooling towers on the horizon of Agrarian Industrial Complex effectively represent this economic shift. Like all painters of the landscape, Dunlap is acutely aware of the changes wrought first by the industrial revolution and, later, the post-industrial economy. Farm workers moved into factory jobs and then into other sectors such as real estate, tourism, and government services. Dunlap's work plays on the Southerner's sense of place, rooted in the agrarian past, but it is a past that is increasingly remote. Southern men and women no longer see their parents and grandparents' lifestyles in lyrical canvases filled with the effects of light on water, light playing across a furrowed field, farmhouses and outbuildings surrounded by acres of rolling green. Because of this estrangement from the agrarian life, modern Southerners must start anew, make a fresh start at re-orienting themselves with the natural world and all that it symbolizes before they can find a place for themselves within Dunlap's landscapes.

Bill Dunlap's paintings also remind us that the South's estrangement from its agrarian roots is relatively recent. While North America's population as a whole was nearly two-thirds urbanized by 1950, a fairly typical Southern state such as South Carolina became majority-urban only in 1980. If they had been painted in the era of the rural South, Bill Dunlap's landscapes would resemble those of Pieter Brueghel the Elder. Kenneth Clark wrote that Brueghel's landscapes were filled with a "rich accumulation of incidents" that inspire belief that "the life of man is linked with nature." [7] Brueghel's peasants, like most of our Southern ancestors, were simple folk whose relationships with God, nature, community, and family are grounded in the routines and rituals of their home villages. Dunlap's art presents us with an invitation to re-establish this vital linkage and asks us to follow his hounds toward home.

Contemporary Southerners cannot depend on naïve wishing to achieve this change in consciousness, but must learn the spiritual lessons of the dog by actively embracing something of their attitude toward life. Theologian Matthew Fox has pointed out that dogs express joy without hesitation, play for no reason, and show an awareness of life's humorous and paradoxical elements. He has even stated publicly that his dog is his "spiritual director."[8] If this seems foolish, he means it quite seriously. It is the same wise foolishness acted out by Dunlap's dogs. To participate fully in his art, to complete his creation and begin the journey toward a new consciousness, Dunlap invites us to embrace the archetype of the "innocent fool." The innocent fool is empowered to be an agent of the truth, like the court jester. Traditionally this important archetype has been represented by the Fool in the Tarot deck, usually considered the most important card because it represents the seeker journeying into the unknown. Significantly, the Fool is always accompanied by a canine companion (see illustration of the Fool from the Waite Tarot deck). Eleanora Woloy explains: "The Fool seems to be in such close contact with his instincts that his animal side literally guides his steps, thereby revealing how closely linked the helpful animal is with the instinctual."[9] In popular Southern culture he is represented by author Winston Groom's Forrest Gump, whose childlike qualities transform his own life and those of others for the better.[10] A similar fool, Chance the Gardener/Chauncey Gardner in Jerzy Kozinsky's novel Being There (brilliantly played in the film version by Peter Sellers), makes simple pronouncements about gardening that are interpreted as zen-like wisdom by Washington economists and politicians. Significantly, the innocent fool's name in each instance makes an oblique reference to the natural world, the world of Dunlap's foolish dogs.

If we follow William Dunlap's dogs into his dream-like compositions, we may end up somewhere toward, or beyond, the long horizon that pulls us into the space of his imagination. Our destination is a magical place of transformation where wise fools find ways to accommodate the seemingly irreconcilable conflicts between Southern rural tradition and contemporary life. The first step is to acknowledge our need to embrace our instinctual kinship with nature, our dog-nature. As we delight in Dunlap's canines, we can declare with Shakespeare's jester Touchstone, "The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool." [11]


(footnotes are pending)


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