Bruno Dunley: Clouds
On ViewNara Roesler
January 12–February 25, 2023
Bruno Dunley has eleven large-scale oil paintings and eleven notebook-scale drawings on display at Nara Roesler in Chelsea, known for its roster of Brazilian artists. Much of Dunley’s new work is the result of a deep investigation into color and finding raw materials within Brazil’s rich and vast natural resources to make handmade oil paint. During the pandemic, it became more challenging to find art supplies as Brazil’s borders closed and imports became expensive. Suddenly, it dawned on Dunley and his business partner, artist Rafael Carneiro, to search locally for the means to make oil paint. They realized that they could produce Brazilian oil paints and cold-pressed linseed oil, which bleaches and thickens in the country’s especially hot sun, and subsequently founded their own paint company, Joules & Joules, in 2020. Dunley’s journey to question his materials has unearthed Brazil as a painter’s fertile ground, despite the lack of painters in his generation when he first began to explore the medium in 2004. Dunley’s recent work has become more expansive in scale, with amplified vitality due to painting with his own colors, while abandoning thick for thin layers of paint. This can be observed literally in the ordered swatches of rectangular color on the edges of Antônio II (2022), which reflect light brightly from the white surface of the canvas.
The abstract drawings are made with charcoal, pastel, and conté crayon, some of which hint at the imagery and gestures of his paintings: black holes, repeated rhythmic short lines, longer straight hand-drawn lines, large areas of thin charcoal, simple circular shapes or a more defined cloud shape, found in the paintings Yellow cloud (2022) and The cloud (2022). The latter painting brings together the kind of mark making prevalent in children’s drawings and paintings. Lines meander back and forth; the cloud is defined in red, blue, and yellow multi-colored lines while its interior is partially “colored in” with pink on top of a white-green pearlescent area. The cloud lives in a cosmic world, carved out from the darkness of a night sky, which also hints at the boundlessness of outer space where stars and planets shine bright. Here, these are personified through holes in the dark paint: orange, pink, yellow, and blue circles of varying sizes drawn as if with a child’s hand which simplifies a star into an irregular circle. Likewise, in its counterpart Yellow cloud, a bright yellow puff floats in a dark cosmic space, in tension with more perfect circles that repeat themselves in organized rows. An expansive area of gray outlined in purple could suggest the edges of an open book, and together these offer playful moments of abstraction and imagination in worlds adjacent to one another.
There are blobs of light resembling floppy circles and oblong shapes floating across the surface of The night (2022) in bright hues of orange, blue, purple, green, yellow—cadmiums, Naples, cobalts—applied thinly with a brushy mark or a veil of solid color. The amorphous shapes are repeated and arranged in three horizontal bands mirroring the topmost band of light blue, which acts as a distinct border or divider. We cannot tell if we’re looking at a bird’s eye view or a frontal perspective of this flattened space. The rhythm feels urban, like vehicles lined up in traffic: these blobs are perhaps trying to get somewhere but are frozen in a moment in time. If there was a figurative reference at the start of his painting adventure, it has been transformed along the way as his personal color narratives evolve.
A border or frame constructed from bands of color appears numerous times in Dunley’s new work, either hidden behind layers of thin paint or left visible. It suggests a search from outside to inside, creating outlines or borders that close in on drawn shapes with both an additive and subtractive color layering process. In Liébana (2022), yellow and orange frame an expansive red arena, the carmine colored in with small back and forth brush marks like a child coloring inside a shape. In this case, Dunley’s shapes are formed from the top-most layer of red honing in on the layers beneath of scraped-on Prussian blue, leaving a trail of large and small globular holes. At the bottom of the painting, we’re left with a hint of drawn red circles, which are scattered throughout the painting like confetti, which perhaps at first served as the blueprint of red circles before the red occupied the negative space. A mysterious baby blue monster’s hand with thick orange stripes of paint is surrounded by different floating circular forms carved with red.
In City (2022), we are witnesses to back-and-forth rhythmic brushwork colored in with brown, searching for forms, and collecting arrangements of loosely painted small squares and swatches of transparent orange, red, green, and purple. This sparkling cosmic background reminds us of the parallels between the urban lights of human life and light traveling through space from stars in the cosmos. The oeuvre of William Hawkins is felt in this work and has occupied Dunley’s spirit as he continues to expand his painterly language and influences that go beyond his Brazilian Modernist education heavily rooted in European and North American art history. City is hugged by an earthy brown, extracted straight from the mountainous ground of Minas Gerais in Brazil and a pigment unique to his oil painting company. In the center we find a window into another pictorial world, the edges simple and curvilinear like the coastal ridges of an island, emphasized by blue, pink, and yellow bands. The baby blue and Prussian blue on orange sculpt out abstracted and metamorphosed shapes with ambiguous references: urban traffic signposts, lollipops, wheels of vehicles on streets, airplane wings, or windows of a school. In this painting, we are inebriated with the hues of saccharine treats as a siren to our inner child.
In contrast, in Gasconha (2022), the horizontal bands showcase a more measured dialogue and composition between Venetian red, turquoise, viridian green, pink, and orange. A green border frames the painting, while the earthy Venetian or ochre red is smothered around thickly on three levels. The halo of pink radiating around the green circles seems to be a thinned-down version of the denser red, which are also present in the sinuous lasso traces looping up and down, which is carved out of the topmost reddish section before turning orange in the second sector. Two turquoise blue humps or chunks of a circle suggest an aquatic presence contrasted with earthy red. The pairs of two circles are attached to each other like embryos and made of thinly scraped deep green revealing magnificent vertical yellow scratches underneath. It is structured similarly to a tablet with ancient pictorial glyphs akin to cuneiform script. Dunley has cited cave painting, ancient Egyptian painting, and illuminated manuscripts as influences, of which we can see traces in his works.
Dunley’s exploration of color through the creation of his oil painting company has opened new forms of color narratives in his work that move between abstraction and loose representation. He channels the vibrant colors and neo-expressionist gestures that nod to his Brazilian background while existing within the global dialogue of painting in the twenty-first century. The life force emanating from the color and fluidity of gestures in his paintings speaks of a fierce freedom, where childlike lines and forms suggest a kind of rebirth and kinship with the fearlessness of youth. These create an energy that may hold a special space in his country, where there is a constant battle for democracy and looming threats of instability due to extreme right politics and dictatorship, which have made the last two years of the pandemic especially difficult and sensitive to Brazil’s complex society. His work seeks to connect to a larger public and pursues freedom from European histories of painting while embracing the tradition of oil and paint on canvas. It offers us hope in dark times.