an essay by Paul Mann

Richard Duning’s Relationship, a Consideration, portrays the compelling intimacy of life and art.     

“It’s a strong word that represents almost everything I’ve done artistically,” he says. “Whether I’m painting or not, I love the depth of relationships. It means a lot to me.”

For Duning, the term denotes “everything in life, not only the relationship, say, between me and my model, but between me and my paintings or between me and the buildings outside or between me and the people who look at my work.”

Duning prizes the essences of relationship: emotion, instinct, intuition, and spontaneity: “It’s what comes to me as true. I might see a broken limb on a tree and make just a simple sketch in my journal. Maybe it’s just a curiosity, but maybe it becomes a painting.”

Either way, a relationship is established.

“Other times I may put up a sheet of paper or canvas and I just start putting down paint. In each place I put a mark; I hope that I’m following some kind of signal from within me. I’m very accepting of that or, equally, of some energy outside of my body.”

  Although a number of paintings in his solo exhibit at the Black Faun bear a figure or representation, Duning says that what he is really up to is “trying to paint an emotion,” the human feelings inseparable from relationships, whether with people, animals or mythical creatures.

The Rough Beast (8’x 6’ acrylic on canvas) depicts a dun-colored, five-legged brute, encircled by peculiar, “protoplasmic” shapes floating above and beneath it. The forms consist of circles, oblongs and wriggles, hard to identify. What appear to be a triton and a vertebral fish skeleton lie at the painting’s bottom.

The beast has a shrunken, skeletal head with eyeless sockets; a stunted camel’s hump; and a distended body partly covered with fur. The creature is feral and Homeric, resembling the parietal art in caves in Lascaux, France, in Spain and elsewhere.     

“I reach and touch the Other,” says Duning.  

Likewise he pursues the idiosyncratic. The centerpiece of the Black Faun exhibit, The Story is about Relationship (48” x 48” acrylic on panel), is a polymorphous image of abstract expressionism.

The red and yellow pigments are fluid, almost runny in places, intermingled and overlapping, indicating that relationships, like life, are mutable, in perpetual flux.

Here and there are runnels, rivulets, vertical striations. The expanse is parti-colored, consisting of layered, streaming washes that are digressive and whirling with abandon.  In a word, the painting is Dionysian. That is characteristic of much of Duning’s art over the past 18 years, the time span of this showcase.

The Story is about a Relationship is what the French poet Paul Claudel (younger brother of the sculptress Camille Claudel) called “a liquefaction of reality,” a kind of wanton pastiche, creamy and tactile.

Except for—the except is an incongruous non-sequitur—a big black X, apparently impetuously slammed down in the work’s mid-section.  

Is the X an abrupt afterthought? Or might it symbolize a relationship ruptured?

Emotions, too, are kinetic, flowing in diverse directions—like paint.

“Sometimes I go into the studio with a feeling that I may be uncomfortable with,” Duning says. “I want to paint that uncomfortableness. Or I’m excited or happy and I want to paint those feelings.

“A new emotion or some new energy steps into me and I’m excited about it or afraid of it. In my painting, I really try to follow those things. I really love splashing gestures and bold lines.”

Don’t Ask (30” x 22” acrylic on paper) is a study in audacious color contrasts that burst off the surface. A striking, vibrant magenta field explodes at the focal point with leaping flames of blue, streaked with electric but nuanced filaments of yellow.

Duning strives to let his unconscious do the painting for him, as unmediated as possible. His creations evoke the arcane, the subliminal.

This encourages the observer to free associate between life and art: la vie vivante.

“My experience, my works are living,” Duning enthuses. “What I imagine, what I see and feel, will continue to tell a story that may alter itself as time goes by.”

Of the Black Faun exhibit, comprising close to 60 works, Duning says it goes in many directions, because “everything is a relationship. By ‘many directions,’ I mean that the landscape of this exhibit is huge.”

 It is extensive not only in number but also in materials, an ideal fit for the spacious Old Town gallery. By happenstance, Duning discovered a 100-year-old bolt of linen while traveling in Auray, Brittany several years ago. He realized it could serve as a refined medium for his handiwork. The result is Auray Linen VII (37” x 27” acrylic on linen), a textile alluring in its elegance and simplicity.

 Amplifying on what he means by his exhibit’s big landscape, Duning says he thinks of it metaphorically as comprising mountains and lakes, diverse topographies.  “I’m investigating some of those places. I’m depicting my relationships with them, putting my painting and the exploration together. I might be asking, ‘What do the mountains and lakes mean?’ That is, they have their own histories and they also have their own symbols and their own architectures. And I relate to them that way.”

 In this sense he considers himself an artist-as-archaeologist. He literally tours physical sites and figuratively conducts archaeological digs in the human unconscious.

 He has explored world-famous Stonehenge, the Neolithic/Bronze Age pagan structure in Wiltshire, England (circa 3100-1600 BCE), and the scores of ancestral pueblos and ruins in Chaco Culture National Historical Park in northwestern New Mexico (circa 900-1150 AD).

 “I stand in such a space, sometimes for days, just feeling it, feeling what the air is like there.” He absorbs these sacred places in infinite time and space through a creative osmosis.

 “I’ve called myself sometimes the ‘Darwin’ of painting,” Duning relates. “Not that I’m the Darwin of painting, but I go out literally into the world, especially to archaeological sites. And also I can just sit in the studio and decide that I’m exploring—that I’m looking for something that makes me have a strong feeling, either curious or passionate or just odd.

“The oddness can really pull me in and I make a painting of it or a drawing. And then I bring it back to both myself and to anyone else who might want to look at it. And I feel, like an archaeologist, that that’s a piece of evidence that I’m bringing back to a more common world.”

There’s another element to Duning’s associative feeling with Darwin. The Black Faun exhibit “is a soulful selection of my work from 2000 to 2018.”  He sees the newest works as an evolution of the earlier ones.

Yet, while the older work informs the newer, so too the latest paintings figure in the earlier ones. He believes that temporally, this Darwinian-like evolution moves in both directions in his creations.

Although Duning’s art portrays emotions, he often employs human figures, or demi-human, figures. Typical is Song of the Earth (8’ x 6’mixed media on wood panel) portraying a Green Man who appears half-male, half androgynous, somewhat mannequin-like.

The figure stands against a dramatically black field, a “cosmos” of thick webbing which incorporates small tinctures of counterpart green, conveying the sensation of a unified field. The humanoid’s face is illuminated by a mystical globe and bright halo; beneath is suspended a great whorl of color with a cyclonic interior, lighted “galactically” from inside.

Duning worked the painting while listening to the lush, Olympian composition for two voices, Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), by the 19th-century Austrian romantic Gustave Mahler.     

The painting and the music beckon to one another, like the artist’s oldest and newest art.