I’ve known Melissa Dunn for over twenty years at this point, and every six months or so, when she invites me over to her home studio – or I invite myself – I get a gut punch reminder of what a good artist she is and how many things someone who’s really paying attention can do with color. The last time I visited, over the summer, she took me through her garden, an experience which was a little like walking through one of her paintings. Afterwards, we went inside with some cuttings and she arranged them in a vase, rearranged them, arranged some more. I wondered what happens when the garden dies down in the fall, and where that specific energy then goes. A few months ago, she posted a picture showing a work in progress (above), hashtag “weirdestfuckingpaintingever”. Maybe it was the season? Naturally I was curious…
– Brian Pera
Evelyn Avenue: What are you working on now?
Melissa Dunn: I’m working on a painting for a group show that hopefully I’ll finish this week. There’s a lack of resolution in it that I’m ambivalent about. I love the problem solving at the end of a piece but I also dread it because I don’t want to rely on standby solutions. It’s in the problem solving that evolution happens and I’m really pushing myself to get out of my comfort zone these days.
Color and the way color touches other colors seems very important to your work. What are you learning about color on this project?
I’m learning that I paint in a brightly lit bubble of spotlights that is far from how color looks in the real world. The bottom half of this canvas is an olive green color that has a glowing effect under the spotlights of my studio that I really like. When I turn those off and the painting is limited to the illumination of just the ceiling light, the yellows in the green that make it glow disappear and that area gets very dark. It’s difficult for me to paint with room level lighting but at some point in each painting I use less light so I can apply the color in the real world instead of the extra-illuminated world of my studio. This painting is really teaching me about how yellow looks in different lighting conditions.
You’ve talked about the instructiveness of gardening to your practice. Where is your garden at right now and what kind of consciousness is that bringing into your studio and this work?
Autumn just knocks me over. I could never live in a place that didn’t have all four seasons. My internal clock would suffer and I would be a mess. Starting at the end of August I notice the light changing. In September so many plants have one last bloom before going dormant. Some blooms last until November and are bright and gaudy among the dead plants around them. I’ve been walking in the woods regularly lately and it’s so showy and on fire. All of this annual change is coming into the painting I’m working on now because I feel like there’s a last gasp of life in this particular piece. Starting in January I’ll be preparing about fifteen canvases for a show a year from now and I’m already envisioning how I want to move my work in a direction that lets evolution, life, death, regeneration all have its say. With that, nature is my teacher.
What did you see today that you hadn’t noticed yesterday in the piece?
A couple of days ago I posted a snap of this painting on Instagram and basically called it a weird fucking painting. My friend had two words of advice – get weirder. That hit me over the head like a ton of bricks! I wrote GET WEIRDER! on a piece of paper with black magic marker and pinned it on my studio wall. I want to dig deep inside myself and extract the strangest, freakiest, most subversive part of my being and paint with that as my guide. I feel like I’m playing it way to safe, and for what? The art market? Ha! My clients? Ha! What I noticed today that I hadn’t noticed yesterday with this painting is that I need to get weirder, get weirder, get weirder.