Close Up and Far Away

John Dunkley: Neither Day nor Night

an exhibition at the Pérez Art Museum Miami, May 26, 2017–January 14, 2018; the National Gallery of Jamaica, Kingston, April 29–July 29, 2018; and the American Folk Art Museum, New York City, October 30, 2018–February 24, 2019
Catalog of the exhibition by Diana Nawi with David Boxer, Olive Senior, and Nicole Smythe-Johnson
Pérez Art Museum Miami/ DelMonico, 224 pp., $45.00
National Gallery of Jamaica, Kingston
John Dunkley: Banana Plantation, 29 1/8 x 17 5/8 inches, circa 1945

In recent years art gallery and even museum shows have come to sport titles in addition to the name of the artist on view. Many of them are forgettable—they are flourishes, really—but the subtitle of the John Dunkley exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum, “Neither Day nor Night,” precisely captures one of the most distinctive aspects of his paintings. Dunkley, who died in 1947 at fifty-six, was a Jamaican artist who made mostly landscapes and whose scenes often have a particular light, which is inseparable from their ambiguous mood and spirit. Looking at his modestly sized canvases, we are often uncertain what time of day it is, or whether the orb we sometimes see poking out behind trees is the sun or the moon. Even on the rare occasions when his pictures present a pale or daytime sky skirting the top edge of the scene, there is a sense that darkness, like an atmospheric blanket, is there at the back and is spreading forward.

The exhibition, which began at the Pérez Art Museum Miami—the excellent catalog is in Spanish and English—brings the American audience its first-ever look at Dunkley, whose engaging small wood sculptures, all of the human figure or animals, are on view along with his paintings. Dunkley the painter was rarely a creator of showstopping, immediately memorable images. His pictures, on a quick first view, seem rather similar, and their predominantly earthen and brown-white, and green and green-white, tones, mixed in with an abundance of black, create an overall, almost metallic, somberness.

But a little extra time in the company of Dunkley’s canvases makes one see, to the great benefit of the work, how inherently abstract, even artificial, these landscapes are. They take us less to Jamaica (or to the island of popular imagination) than into the mind of someone who happened to be Jamaican. Dunkley’s pictures, which generally are not of particular places in his country, are in many instances like crosses between little theater sets and the creations of a landscape architect. The painter’s characters, so to speak, are meaty plants, assertive leaves, and cumbrous rosettes (or clusters of leaves), which he makes resemble heads of enormous cauliflowers. There are tidy stone walls, brand-new-looking log fences, and strange cut-down trees, which stick out here and there like baseball bats and can strike viewers, we read in the catalog, as “unabashedly phallic.”

Like his headstrong shrubs, Dunkley’s thrusting tree remnants have more presence than the occasional person in his pictures. In the beautiful Going to Market, we look less at a woman on a mule than at the marvelously painted canopy of succulents hanging over her. The most vivid being in Dunkley’s paintings may be a large, pensive rabbit that has taken a since-I-am-immobile-you-don’t-see-me pose at…

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