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Bringing painting into the third dimension

“Currently, it makes more sense to me to build a painting rather than have something blank that I will then fill in with marks.” Meet Dan Gunn, the 30-year-old artist whose unusual approach to painting has caught the attention of an increasing number of Chicago curators and gallery owners.

This month, Gunn is the focus of two solo shows — one at the Museum of Contemporary Art and another at Wicker Park’s Moniquemeloche Gallery — a rare occurrence for someone who is barely four years out of graduate school. Inclusion in a third exhibition this fall, a group show opening Thursday at Columbia College’s A+D Gallery, has kept Gunn busy this year producing more new work than ever.

“This is a totally new thing for me,” Gunn said recently over a cup of coffee in Logan Square, where he resides. Following a packed-to-the-gills panel discussion and temporary exhibition at Moniquemeloche last winter, Gunn was invited to join the gallery’s roster in the spring — almost simultaneous with an invitation from associate curator Julie Rodrigues Widholm to produce one of the MCA’s final shows in the long-running 12 x 12 New Artists/New Work series.

Previously, Gunn’s solo forays have been limited to apartment galleries, including a stunning turn last fall at West Town’s Lloyd Dobler Gallery. That site-specific installation, “Multistable Picture Fable,” was more sculpture than painting: bold stripes of paint, ribbon and fabric pinned like appendages to found-wood panels and salvaged scraps, all hinged together in a spiral winding over 9 feet of the gallery floor.

Though Gunn holds a painting degree from the School of the Art Institute, his work is increasingly three-dimensional, which he traces back to a postgrad job in Lookingglass Theatre’s scene shop. “I was not a theater person so I’d never (previously) seen a stage up close,” Gunn said, “and (sets) are really not convincing at 3 or 4 feet away. … But then when you’re sitting in the audience, with a certain kind of lighting on it, it’s seamless.”

Lighting was already an obsession, Gunn said, explaining that he entered SAIC as a photo-realistic painter, but “at a certain point, I didn’t know what to paint anymore,” he said. “I just wanted to have light in my work.” That’s evident in Gunn’s show at Moniquemeloche, especially, as it capitalizes on the gallery’s massive western-facing window. Gunn constructed a wooden screen that filters light through the window onto the rest of his work. The effect is homey, almost like the light one might find in a bedroom in the morning. By contrast, Gunn said his work at the MCA show has a more playful, less domestic vibe.

Both shows entail quite a bit of construction for someone who considers himself a painter. “I’m slowly understanding what it means to make something in three dimensions,” Gunn said. He mentioned a recent conversation with a friend who studied trumpet performance at DePaul University, in which the two compared notes on artistic self-improvement. “It’s strange in that (as an artist), you kind of have to out-perform yourself from week to week,” Gunn said. “Nobody’s watching to make sure you’re getting better. You’re in the studio based on a commitment to personally get better at what you do.”