The Genius of Sam Dunson

by Daniel Tidwell

In a 1989 article in the New York Times titled “Black Artists, A Place in the Sun,” Michael Berenson writes about a blossoming and growing acceptance of black artists, including Melvin Edwards, Martin Puryear, and Robert Colescott, in the corridors of the New York art world. According to Berenson, the pluralism and multiculturalism of the ’80s had fostered an awareness that art made by black artists has a “purpose, humanity and scope that needs to be seen and fought over in major cultural institutions.” Berenson goes on to say that “the work of black American artists has become essential to the future of American art and to understanding who we are.” However, he also acknowledges that “black artists continue to encounter tremendous resistance within the institutionalized art world, particularly in New York” where “most people who follow, show and buy contemporary art do not have a clue how rich and complex the art of black Americans is.”

Fast-forward to November 1994 and the opening of the Whitney’s The Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art. The racial climate across the country was charged, with the O.J. Simpson trial underway and the wounds from Rodney King, Marion Barry, and Clarence Thomas still fresh in the public mind. It was a moment when it was impossible for Americans not to talk about notions of black masculinity, and the show was met with immediate controversy.

In an interview with Charlie Rose, exhibition curator Thelma Golden described the show’s focus on black masculinity as a “place to begin to understand how America really feels about race and gender and even sexuality.” For Golden the fears of otherness which play out around black masculinity were at the root of racism, sexism, and homophobia. Her hope was that the exhibition could start a conversation about multidimensional notions of stereotypes and provide ways in which the viewer could negotiate a place between positive and negative interpretations of images. In late 1994 this type of reasoned discourse proved unsuccessful in relation to the show, and the outcry was such that philanthropist and PC guru Peter Norton, on the board of the Whitney at the time, had to partially bankroll the show when it travelled to the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles.

Sam Dunson

Whispering Sweet Nothings in a Goddess’ Ear, Mixed Media on canvas

Jump ahead again to 2001 and Freestyle, Golden’s first major show as head of the curatorial team at the Studio Museum in Harlem, opens to positive reviews and the mainstream art world’s embrace. In the exhibition, which included twenty-eight young black artists and a great deal of painting, Golden used the term “post-black” to describe artists who were “adamant about not being labeled ‘black’ artists, though their work was steeped, in fact deeply interested, in redefining complex notions of blackness.” In the New York Times review of the show, Holland Cotter wrote that the exhibition “suggests recasting the notion of what ‘black art’ means in a country, a neighborhood, even an art world where racial balances are shifting. In the process, it rethinks, but doesn’t abandon, the identity politics that drove much of the advanced art of the past twenty years.”

Sam Dunson’s bold, energetic narrative paintings would have been at home in the Freestyle exhibition along with other artists like John Bankston, Kojo Griffin, David Huffman, and Layla Ali who used cartoonish imagery to propel narratives. Like a cross between a Google image search and a Facebook timeline profile, Sam Dunson’s biographical paintings confront the viewer with a riot of color and a fusillade of images, art historical references, and social commentary—“embracing dichotomies” (to use Golden’s post-black terminology) “of high and low, inside and outside, tradition and innovation, with great ease and facility.”

As in the work of painter Kerry James Marshall, Dunson’s work focuses on narratives that highlight the black figure, making the image of blackness visible as an image of power. Like Robert Colescott, the master satirist whose overtly political and multicultural work paved the way for many contemporary black artists, Dunson looks for the satirical and political hook in his imagery, as in Social Beings where a giant puppeteer is visible behind a curtain, manipulating an artist/puppet working on his canvas. In What a Pieta, a black Christ is cradled in the lap of a black Virgin Mary, while a demented rabbit puts bunny ears on Christ and a pixilated figure in a red robe looks on. In some works the content is much more of a one-liner, like Readers Café, where Dunson’s alter-ego digs into Richard Wright’s Native Son for breakfast, a waitress carries a tray full of books with butter and syrup, and other patrons are busy eating books as well. Dunson acknowledges the influence of dada, surrealism, and pop art in helping define his satirical take on socio-political content.

Sam Dunson

On the Third Day, He Discovers Kryptonite, Mixed media on canvas

Dunson says that he’s always been “interested in using political and biographical content in my work. It is necessary for me to tell stories I feel a connection to. At heart, I am somewhat of a shy person, but my works allow me to speak about my strong socio-political feelings. As I age as an artist, I am much less concerned with the audience’s feelings or emotions because, at this time, I am much more concerned with my own.”

Dunson’s most recent work has taken a starkly autobiographical turn, dealing directly with his own health issues and concerns with mortality. “I am now 41, but a year ago, as a 40-year-old, I was told by my doctor that I have high blood pressure, I am pre-diabetic, I have a blood disorder, and I need to lose more than twenty pounds.”

The diagnosis shook Dunson to the core, and he dealt with it through the creation of a new body of work, incorporating stuffed animals, painted images of sock monkeys transported to the Vietnam war, and a sculpture of a spirit guide pulling a wagon full of stuffed animals whose function is to “soothe the soul” and “play the part of a grim reaper . . . making the transition from life to death as comfortable as possible.”

For Dunson, art has always been about play and an intuitive approach to problem solving. “For the past ten years I’ve attempted to approach my art without a preconceived notion of what the end product will be. I love the process of creating art, so I want the production of work to be as conversational as possible. I have made a conscious effort to allow any and all thoughts or images to become part of the paintings and sculptures. If the image is good it stays as part of the visible work. If the image causes a problem, it is painted over, but it remains part of the work process. In this way the work becomes more intuitive than it is preconceived, and the process becomes as important as the concept.”

You can’t tell everyone’s story,” says Dunson. “I have always felt it best to speak for myself as opposed to speaking for everyone.” Dunson’s sentiments echo Golden’s idea of a “post-black” art and Robert Colescott’s reply when asked if he felt an obligation to serve “the black community” through his art. Mr. Colescott replied, “The way that one serves is to serve art first,” adding that “the way you serve art is by being true to yourself.”

Sam Dunson’s work will be on view at The Rymer Gallery from June 2–June 30 in Alumni: New Ground Director’s Choice.

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