Teresa Dunn is a Michigan-based artist whose narrative paintings on panel explore worlds with texture and complexity. Her recent paintings, now on view at First Street Gallery in New York City, are full of figures who are confronting points of no return. The strong exhibition title Event Horizon displays works full of ‘tightrope walkers’, burning boats, exposed flesh and rising waters; all this as if the settings create dreamlike atmospheres.
The narratives put the characters and their motivations in tests when they look into the incongruous landscapes around them. The works are full of story, where mothers and fathers, animals and children, friends and strangers interact in tightly woven communities. The paintings depict absurdity and metaphorical allusions. Together the works link into each other, and so rearrange the reality in a new order. As the artist states:
Peculiar reality becomes normal, as in dreams or memory. Amidst bizarre sequences of events, dreams are believable when we are immersed in them. Memories distort, dissolve, and rearrange themselves until we are unable to discern fact from invention.
Dunn’s paintings seem to connect to a stronger sense of reality than what would perhaps be without the symbolic hindrance and delay. Her tactics of ’disconnect in perception’ shows the underlying ideas telling about identity and interaction. ’’Seasons, relationships, jobs, and cities attempt to define us. Peculiar occurrences, symbolism, and metaphor tie together some loose ends and fray others.’’ (Teresa Dunn).
FIRSTINDIGO&LIFESTYLE: Your new exhibition Event Horizon is now on view in New York’s City and has gained attention. How would you describe the gallery?
TERESA DUNN: I appreciate that First Street Gallery has given me the opportunity to show my work in New York. Being a resident of the Midwest it is more difficult to put my work into the world. Being in a community of supportive artists in a major art center is critical to keeping me in the conversation.
Your works narrate multiple events which perhaps relate to natural disasters, as the burning boats, floods or risen water show. What does this vision mean to you?
TD: The element of natural disaster is new in my work just appearing in this body of paintings. I am interested in the combination of the fire and the water events because the characters in my narratives seem to have to choose between two negatives–fire or water; precarious balance on the tightrope or falling to an unknown abyss; frigid wintery environment or blazing car fire. But not all of the people fear about the disasters some look with awe or indifference. Is the flaming horizon reddish from the setting sun or from a fiery disaster just out of sight? It is the ambiguity that life presents us that both makes it invigorating and terrifying.
In one of the works there is in fact this chilly atmosphere, with two people, perhaps a couple, and the face in the background has a scull written on it. What kinds of representation do you relate to this particular image (titled: Because I could not stop for Death)?
TD: In the painting to which you refer with the winter environment and the skull “Because I could not stop for Death” the title is borrowed from an Edna St. Vincent Millay poem. In this painting there are elements of my Mexican background from my mother’s side. In Mexico, images of skulls, death, and skeletons are traditionally not representative of an existential anxiety in they way we see them in American culture. Instead the skull represents the tie between those who come before and those who come after. I like presenting the seasonal metaphor of death as dormancy alongside the skeletons and the chicken protecting its egg in anticipation of the season turning to spring. The painting talks about life as cyclical as opposed to being simply linear. In fact all of the narratives intend to provide a non-linear approach to story telling in format and/or content.
How did you become a storyteller, it is fascinating, also because we don’t that often see contemporary artists really entangle themselves into stories that much. What do you wish to say about it?
TD: I have always been interested in story telling and from childhood drew pictures of people in unusual environments with dramatic events occurring. I enjoy observing life as it unfolds and am very compelled by people’s personal stories. My love of the story also carries into literature and film. In many ways I see the cinema as having the closest relationship to my work in the way that it deals with narrative in terms of time, space, and content. This is why I am currently drawn to more cinematic horizontal canvases. The Italian Renaissance is a huge influence on my work as well with the story being a critical part of image interpretation–in additional this period of paintings deals with time and space in a way that I find addresses a more circular or non-linear perspective in story telling. Where it is through multi-panel works; recurring characters; strange use of scale, space, or color, and complex composing.
How about a conflict between nature and culture, between humans and their living habitats? Our future with environment, and climate change problem are timely topics now and so is a question how we as people face them; does this resonate to what you do?
TD: My work is less directly about the current environmental problems we as a society face. Although they do present a very relevant and accessible metaphor to be interpreted in ways that are meaningful to the viewer. In the conflict you suggest between humans, nature, environment, and culture these are exciting analogies to be used to deal with the way in which we interact with our communities, ourselves, and our trials and tribulations.
Tell in few words how do you work as an artist, and balance between your university-teaching and painting?
TD: Regarding teaching and painting: Painting always must come first. Understanding the issues at hand in my field feeds my teaching in the same way that I view life experience as feeding my artwork. It is a bit more difficult these days being a mother to a 2 year old to balance the three-painting, family, and teaching. However I am fortunate to teach at Michigan State University, an institution that highly values my creative research. This body of work was created during a sabbatical leave in the first half of 2014 and I currently have a research leave funded through a university grant which is allowing me to further probe these new ideas.
Teresa Dunn’s Event Horizon is on view until October 4, 2014 at First Street Gallery – 526 West 26th Street, Suite 209, Hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 11 am-6 pm.
See the artist website: www.teresadunnpaintings.com