I saw William Dunlap in the gift store at the Mississippi Museum of Art, signing copies of his book "Dunlap" (University Press of Mississippi, 2006, $45) with his whiskey on the counter, joking and keeping everyone smiling.
His art doesn't give you the same happy feeling as a conversation with him does, but that isn't a bad thing. Dunlap's expansive landscapes make the viewer consider the importance of the land and the effect we are all having on it. Even if you hate dogs in art (like I normally do), this exhibit is worth viewing just for the landscape component, and odds are you will realize that the dog can be a symbol without being cliché.
Dunlap autographed copies of his book with personalized notes for anyone that asked, and he seemed to remember every face effortlessly. As he socialized, we discussed the connection between nature and industry, and how a dog can symbolize the presence of man. This is one of the themes in Dunlap's work: Showing the presence of man without showing actual people in his landscape. He illustrates the mark of man with fences, straight rows and deforestation. Critics have accused Dunlap of moralizing the landscape, but it is a charge he welcomes.
"It is our responsibility to do more than just pave (the environment)," Dunlap said.
Some of the dogs in this series of paintings were his grandfather's hunting dogs. Dunlap saw the dogs as one of the few conduits through which his grandfather was willing to show emotion or vulnerability—the Southern gentleman of the period did not having much leeway in such things.
In Dunlap's paintings, the dogs symbolize the individual but they also represent life and virility, as active participants in a sacrificial theme (a juxtaposition of life and death) in many of the paintings. Dunlap discusses how the life of the fox hounds is to chase—"chasing is when they are most alive"—and how this contrasts with the death of their quarry. This evokes the aura of death that Dunlap feels surrounds Mississippi, "making life all the more precious," he says.
As I was leaving, I thought about the difficulty of using animals as subject matter in art. I have long derided art with dogs as the subject, especially the whimsical work of William Wegman, who dresses up his Weimaraners in ridiculous outfits. This commercialized art is probably something Dunlap would accept: He embraces methods that bring art to the public. But no matter what he may think, his show "What Dogs Dream" is reclaiming the dog from the camp of kitsch. He takes this trusted animal and endows it with all the weight and symbolism of the South.
"What Dogs Dream and Other Works" will run through Dec. 3 and will be one of the last shows in the museum's current space.