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Category: Interview

Interview: Bill Dunlap

This is the first in an occasional series of interviews with visual artists. I’m interested in the work people do in media other than writing, and often find inspiration there, so I want to reach out to those people and, as best I can, talk to them about their ideas and work. I met Bill Dunlap at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts in 2006; we’ve stayed in touch since. I’m a huge admirer of his paintings and drawings and have wanted to talk to him about his art for a while now. I’m really happy he took the time to answer my questions. More of Bill’s work can be found at www.billdunlap.com

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Can you talk a little bit about the line—I’ve followed your work for some time now, and have noticed the importance of lines in your drawings (obviously) but also your paintings, many of which are intricate linear systems. In some of your later paintings (I’m thinking your ‘Black Paintings’) the absence of lines seems to be important, that lines are deliberately smudged. And, in your newer work, the quilt-inspired stuff, you seem to be back to lines, but simpler geometric shapes. Perhaps this is just the influence of illustration on your work, but it seems like more than that–I wonder, too, about your interest in music and writing—mediums also fundamentally built from lines.

I’ve thought that if an artist has some affinity for line, then the work tends to look more like graphics, decoration, illustration – often with areas of solid color. On the other hand, if an artist has greater interest in tone or shading the work tends to look more painterly, “realistic”. This is true even for drawing: line drawers tend to make discrete outlined scenes and figures, while tone drawers use shading to make more rounded-out objects emphasizing changes in light. Line work tends to be bolder and more immediate, shaded work tends to be more mysterious. Grosz and Goya, two of my favorite artists, embody these differences. Grosz’s drawings from around WWI are a kind of genius stick figure drawing that has always amazed me. I continue to marvel at how much power he achieves with such an economy of means. Goya’s etchings (The Disasters of War, especially) use loads of cross-hatching, stippling, washes, and other effects to achieve their dark chiaroscuro. The ambiguity of scene and lighting adds to the terror of the compositions.

So I’ve often thought how these two extremes could play out in my own work. I’ve found that it tends to be either/or. When I work in a way where lines are dominant, tonal changes and lighting don’t seem to play much of a role. At times I can combine the two styles, but currently I’m feeling that those works have a kind of add-on quality that I’m not so interested in right now. Usually, the way they come about is that I do a rather loose “painterly” thing, then lay out areas of line work on top of the paint areas. Lately, I’ve come to feel that those pieces have a kind of “futzing around” quality to them, as if I do something spontaneous, then start doodling on top of it. If the spontaneous areas were truly strong, they wouldn’t need the decoration on top. This has led to how I’ve been doing the black paintings lately. I try to use no lines at all, but still they show up now and then. I think of those lines as being more functional, rather than decorative.

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