There's always a bit of hoopla surrounding William Dunlap, the Mississippi-born painter and sculptor whose Panorama of the American Landscape currently receives top billing at the Ogden Museum. And I have to admit that whenever I encountered his paintings in the past, I found myself wondering what all the fuss was about. Don't get me wrong, I think his paintings are, um ... nice. Really. There is nothing offensive about them. But neither did they make much of an impression beyond making me wonder where he got that oddly apportioned painting style. And was there something profound in there that I somehow missed entirely?
Now the University of Mississippi has just put out a big coffee table book of his work titled Dunlap, with essays by Vogue senior writer Julia Reed and Ogden Museum director Richard Gruber, and a very nice book it is. I had hoped the essays would clear up some of my questions about this artist, and to some extent they did. But I was already feeling better about his stuff anyway after seeing the Panorama of the American Landscape installation at the Ogden Museum, which has some of those elements I find off-putting, but which still looks good, maybe because uneven artworks often look good when arranged as a conceptual "installation."
In this case, it all went back to the 1980s when Jane Livingston of the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. asked Dunlap what he would do with the gallery's classical rotunda if he were given the chance. He replied that it "cried out for a cyclorama," as he recalled a childhood trip to Georgia to see the famous cyclorama depicting the Battle of Atlanta. The only problem was that it would involve painting. It turns out that Dunlap's MFA from Ole Miss was in sculpture and printmaking and that, as a painter, he is pretty much self-taught, having taken it up later. Well, that explained a lot.
While teaching at Appalachian State University in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, he developed a strong relationship with the dramatic landscape that rose up from farmlands not unlike his childhood home in Webster County, Miss., and extended through the historic Virginia of America's origins. But the drama that haunted him was the Civil War, and his Panorama includes unlikely symbolism, for instance, an infinitely receding line of severed stag heads that lay bleeding in the snow as symbols of the 23,000 soldiers who died on a single day in the Battle of Antietam. Other images, from Jefferson's Monticello and traditional Southern farms and bridges to modern day nuclear power plants, flesh out his 14 painted panels. If his rolling spatial perspectives border on the primitive, his crisp buildings and bridges evoke architectural renderings -- or perhaps the precisely etched incisions of a print maker. Throughout it all are loping packs of Walker hounds, the hunting dogs he grew up with that his grandfather bred. Somehow it all, perhaps inexplicably, sort of works.
Still, I couldn't imagine how he sold the nationally prominent Corcoran on such a loopy proposal, sight unseen. But an accompanying video reveals Dunlap to be that most unusual of Southern species: the fast-talking Mississippian. The words pour out in staccato torrents -- imagine James Carville on speed. Julia Reed, in her foreword, calls him "a tireless networker," and remarks on his ability to talk his way into, or out of, almost anything, even selling paintings sight unseen to total strangers he'd only just met. Hmmm -- now that sure sounds like a useful talent for an artist to have.
At this point, a discerning reader might infer a lingering hint of skepticism in this account, so I should perhaps own up that my inner jury is still out on this one -- but not for lack of interest. My own family has deep roots in the rural South from the Carolinas to Mississippi on my father's side, and I can relate to Dunlap's obsessive empathy with the spirit of that rich and bloody land. But that is a long story. For now, let's just say his Panorama of the American Landscape is worth a gander if you get the chance, an ambitious and improbable spectacle from a surprising American artist.
- William Dunlap's Panorama of the American Landscape consists of 14 painted panels arranged like a cyclorama.