With his measured words and assured demeanor, Delano Dunn’s calm presence stands in contrast with his fiercely vibrant artworks currently on display at Long Gallery. No One Can Be This Tomorrow, Dunn’s current exhibit with the gallery, displays the hope of empowerment embodied by Dunn’s portraits of black women, men, and family depicted upon layers of technicolor mixed media. Recently the artist took time to walk through his exhibit and discuss this series along with influences that have shaped Dunn’s artistic practice.
AP Thanks Delano for meeting to discuss your work today. Can you start by giving us an overview on how your career as an artist has developed until now?
DD I’m originally from South Central LA, and lived there through the (Rodney King) riots in the early ‘90s. I came to Pratt in Brooklyn in 1997, studying to become an illustrator. Originally I was influenced by comic books (I started making comic book art when I was young) and went to Pratt with this in mind as a career. Freshman year at Pratt I switched focus to illustration, looking to make a career in editorial illustrations. I began to focus primarily making art on a regular basis in 2007, working on new works in between other responsibilities. I recently completed my MFA from the School of Visual Arts*, making the switch to becoming a full-time artist. (*Dunn is modest: he completed his MFA with the honor of receiving two awards from SVA, the Edward Zutrau Memorial Award and the Alumni Society Thesis Award.)
AP So attending SVA was a point of entry into the art world full-time?
DD Actually, I was working at the Whitney Museum of American Art prior to SVA. Working with the museum and becoming familiar with the various materials used throughout the building influenced my practice. That, and seeing my grandfather work.
AP What did he do?
DD He is a jack-of-all-trades. He always had old tools and equipment lying around, so I got to play with spare parts and electronics.
AP Definitely sounds like a source of inspiration - I had a similar experience with my family having a shop of old equipment, where my folks would weld.
DD It just opens up a whole new world of possibilities.
AP Can you walk through this series and your recent body of work, In Our Time? What has shifted as you moved into working on No One Can Be This Tomorrow?
DD Sure - for the series No One Can Be This Tomorrow I started focusing on research at New York Public Libraries, particularly the Schomburg Center, last Summer with production beginning in the Fall. The images included in this series span from drawings from the abolition period (1860’s) to photographs from the 20th century, including portraits and caricatures. A large focus for this series was making women and girls visible in the work. This is probably a reaction to having a daughter now; that, and I feel I’ve focused substantially on the black male experience in previous work. In the work (She) Black Tron the androgynous figure is a female Tron, subverting expectations placed on the superhero genre (in which there are few female characters, much less black female superheroes.-ed.)
AP Your works seem to have shifted from previous series that emphasize autobiographical elements, such as Everyone Digs Delano Dunn, to research-based methods. Was this a conscious shift as a result of your MFA studies, perhaps?
DD There is some overlap (of these two themes) through my work over time, and in many ways my older work is in dialogue with autobiographical themes, like growing up in LA and not being black enough, liquor store ads in the community, etc. There has always been research in my work, however; this is something I was already doing when I started pursuing my MFA. These studies allowed me to further broaden this part of my practice, making me willing to go headfirst into the research with renewed vigor.
AP Speaking of influences from your earlier years, you mentioned comic book art. Do you have any notable influences from this genre along with contemporary artists that have informed your practice?
DD I definitely draw from both worlds. On the comic book side two icons are Greg Capullo, the artist for the Spawn and Batman comics, was an early influence along with Rick Leonardi of Spiderman 2099. Contemporary artists - there are so many it’s hard to name them all… Mickalene Thomas, Theaster Gates, Glenn Ligon, Robert Rauschenberg and Richard Diebenkorn, to name a few. Also writers are a major influence on my practice, especially Toni Morrison and James Baldwin.
AP Writers, interesting! That speaks to the profound sense of humanism emanating from your work.
DD Thanks, as much as I enjoy abstract work I feel compelled to be able to relate to the work itself, and feel compassion. This arises in the form of human interaction. Writing has a lot to do with that...I really do want to communicate to people. Some of that illustration practice still lingers, I guess.
AP The content of your works makes an impact, and the textures and tones of the materials are equally fascinating. Can you talk about the source of your materials for this series of work, how you select them and their significance?
DD There’s a real layering of histories and eras inherent to these works. The wallpaper included in some of these pieces are sourced from a church that historically welcomed refugees in Grand Rapids, MI. This material thus has a loaded history that responds directly to the election. The colors included in many of these works spans the rainbow, which is intentional: when you examine a rainbow, it’s meant to stand for acceptance, for hope and diversity, and yet the rainbow itself is an optical illusion. You can’t touch a rainbow. This election, so much positivity, hope for a diverse presidential legacy - potentially going from the first black president in the white house to the first female president - was stifled. I see this as a real blow to women. We now have an oppressor who’s wiping out the identities and importance of female figureheads, and by depicting these women throughout this series of works I’m hoping to reclaim these identities in a sense.
AP This idea of legacy is interesting to me - do you feel like through history, things haven’t really changed or progressed as much as we believe they have?
DD I think things haven’t changed, but they have been re-branded, from emancipation through Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Era...it’s always seemed like things have changed, but they really haven’t. There’s not any less of a problem, just different problems. It’s sad in a way; there’s a feeling that in this time period when we could’ve had real advancement we really haven’t. It’s ridiculously that there hasn’t been a female president. When you look at the space program the USSR helmed they included women and black astronauts before the US did - we don’t live in a post-black or post-gender era, not in the slightest. -AP
Delano Dunn will be in conversation with Khalil Gibran Muhammad at Long Gallery from 6:30 pm - 8:30 pm on Monday, March 27th produced by Sanaa Contemporary - info available here.
To attend, please RSVP to: firstname.lastname@example.org