Dan Gunn is an artist, writer, and educator in Chicago
I laughed almost immediately when I turned the corner and saw the arrangement of more than two dozen burgundy, square card tables and wooden banquet tables laden with dolls. I had eaten countless Thanksgiving and Christmas meals at identical tables in my extended family’s basements over the years. They looked out of place in the MCA Chicago’s pristine, white-walled galleries. I felt like I had stumbled across a garage sale hastily assembled on someone’s yellowing lawn, slowly walking circles around the tables, admiring the methodical way the stuffed animals had been organized and displayed: one table was dedicated to sock monkeys, another to crocetched, human-like figures, and an entire banquet table had a single doll with a human head and a rotund, cylindrical body. Each grouping also appeared on the walls in arrangements of gelatin silver prints where each toy was displayed next to a measuring tape, suggesting that the toys had been organized by a set of criteria, which became obvious after I read the title of the artwork: “Craft Morphology Flow Chart.” Made by the Detroit-born artist Mike Kelley, the installation was Kelley’s attempt to catalog these handcrafted objects the way specimens might be displayed in a natural history museum or organized in a laboratory. It was the first time I had seen a work of art that felt distinctly Midwestern despite the inherent pretension of organizing children’s toys and calling it art; If I ever brought my parents or siblings to the exhibition, they would’ve mocked the installation, claiming, “This is art? I could make something like this.”
And, while I agree to an extent, Kelley subverted the ivory tower of the art world by bringing handcrafted dolls into art museums, exalting cultural objects that have rarely been exhibited in museums because of their sentimental value. I thought of Kelley’s installation while walking through Dan Gunn’s exhibition “of the land behind them” at Monique Meloche Gallery. In the first gallery, Gunn’s series of sculptural paintings “Suitcase Acts” line the walls. Visually similar to letterpress drawers often used for display in antique shops and evocative of Louie Nevelson’s wall pieces of the 1950s and ‘60s, the glazed stoneware feature nestled objects representing tiny bottles, figurines, tool-shaped items, and other tchotchkes that also have a sentimental value, similar to the handmade dolls in Kelley’s work. Gunn’s paintings draw on American kitsch, an art genre that has distinctly Midwestern roots. They are presented alongside Gunn’s “Patchwork Plateau,” an expansive table-like sculpture that is the obvious centerpiece of the exhibition. This is the first time the sculpture has been mounted since it was first displayed at the MCA Chicago 10 years ago. The work is topographic and domestic, weaving elements of handcraft and painting in an ambitious landscape installation.
Gunn expands his focus on the Midwestern pastoral landscape captured in “Patchwork Plateau” in his new series of paintings created by hand-cutting, staining, and meticulously sewing plywood so that they resemble actual hanging fabrics. One of the paintings, “Paradise Scenery” depicts an idyllic Ohio River landscape nestled in between two lush trees and cushioned inside a tent-like structure. Combining elements of hand and chip carving, whittled bird sculptures, and salvaged wood from historic sites, Gunn introduces viewers to his paternal woodworking, using materials and craft techniques that are explicitly sourced from Midwestern artmaking. As a native Midwesterner, I was delighted to see Gunn’s draperies, to see him use craft techniques like whittling that my father taught me when I was in Boy Scouts, using a pocketknife to slowly transform a bar of soap into a rudimentary beaver.
Further drawing from typically Midwestern imagery, Gunn has a series of works on paper that collage clippings of farming, eagles, fishing, quilts, La-Z-Boy sofas, and workwear from magazines such as National Geographic. He is interested in exploring the boundary between urban and rural communities and how people from these different regions create these regional identities through mythological representations of the landscape and images of different animals and activities associated with rural America. Gunn’s collages capture a sense of anxiety as he attempts to reconcile his fond memories of growing up in Kansas and the way that Midwestern politics and culture has become particularly associated with far-right ideologies. In the exhibition text, Gunn asserts that this exhibition attempts to “construct a counterfactual folk art, one not riddled with nostalgia but more accurate to the current state of affairs.” However, his work elides making any sort of explicit political statement, failing to draw out a more nuanced and compelling morphology of American Midwestern imagery and its ideological functions. As I admire “Paradise Scenery,” leaning closer to admire the way Gunn stitched together the panels of plywood with nylon rope, I am awed by his skillful manipulation of various materials and craft techniques. Yet, I cannot help but wonder where he is accomplishing his aforementioned aims. The current state of affairs in America do not appear anywhere in the works on view.
Artist Dan Gunn Bio
Dan Gunn is an artist, writer, and educator in Chicago, IL. He received an MFA in Painting from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2007 where he is now an Adjunct Assistant Professor. He was awarded residencies at the Wassaic Project (2021), University of Arkansas (2019), Anderson Ranch Art Center (2018), Vermont Studio Center (2015), and The Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture (2012).
Gunn’s work is currently included in “The Regional”—the first major multi-museum survey dedicated to contemporary artists based in the Midwest—on view at the Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati from December 10, 2021 to March 20, 2022, and traveling to the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City from June 2 to September 11, 2022.