John Dunkley, an Outsider Artist Deep in the Heart of Jamaica
The Jamaican visionary John Dunkley (1891-1947) is the latest artist to decimate the distinctions between self-taught and trained, outsider and insider and folk and not folk. The first large museum survey in the United States devoted to the work of this gifted autodidact is now at the American Folk Art Museum, after originating at the Pérez Art Museum Miami in 2017, with Diana Nawi, now an independent curator, heading the organizing team.
Containing several vivacious carved wood figures and more than 30 dense, luminous landscapes, the show is a revelation. As its subtitle accurately acknowledges, the canvases are seen by “Neither Day Nor Night,” but bathed in a third light, that of full moons, dreams or faith.
Dunkley, who has long been cherished in his homeland, is the second important self-taught Caribbean artist to be introduced here recently. He follows Frank Walter (1926-2009), whose work was shown by Hirschl & Adler at the 2017 Outsider Art Fair, on its way to representing Antigua at the Venice Biennale that year. While Walter sometimes pushed his landscapes to the brink of jewel-toned abstractions, Dunkley aligned the expressive powers of natural form and painted textures into a recognizable but uncanny, highly symbolic world. In stylization and mood, his efforts relate to the art of the American painters Edward Hicks, Albert Pinkham Ryder and Henri Rousseau.
Dunkley left little in the way of an oral or written record. Born in a village on the west coast of Jamaica, he spent at least two decades chasing jobs around the Caribbean, picking up skills and visual memories as he went. There were stints working as a photographer’s assistant and on a Cuban banana plantation. He also acquired hair-cutting experience, and when he returned to Kingston in 1931, he opened a barbershop there and within a few years turned to making art.
Dunkley’s work was almost immediately embraced by artists, historians and patrons — especially elite Jamaicans on the lookout for art that was more African and Jamaican than European and colonial, but he went his own way. He refused instruction, for example, studying art books and magazines at the Institute of Jamaica, where volumes on Rousseau and William Blake were important to him as were magazine images and advertisements, which most likely inspired “Woman on a Stool,” the most soignée sculpture here. Dunkley also probably saw African sculpture in the collections of his admirers; his attention to Chinese landscape painting is especially visible in relatively spare paintings of three mountains, one at ocean’s edge and two offshore.
Working in a faded-tapestry palette of mostly black, dark brown and white tinted with green, rose and yellow, he energized his images with disorienting shifts in scale, perspective and form. Bushes and trees suggest large vegetables or flowers; chopped-off tree trunks intimate water pipes, corncobs or phalluses. The branches they sprout are often trees unto themselves. Numerous paths and lanes disappear into dark forests or tunnels while reinforcing the flatness of the canvas.
The paint textures range from a thick stucco (used mostly for sheep) to a thinned-down Impressionism (thatches of strokes that denote either grassy banks or overflowing water). Sexual tensions abound, along with a mood that has been called melancholy or gloomy. At a certain point — possibly when he knew he was dying of lung cancer — medallion-like crabs begin to dot his scenes. Ultimately nature seems both welcoming and vaguely sinister, and either way intensely spiritual, as if manifesting God as both protector and judge.
Dunkley was alive to the political and social currents of his time and place. Agitation and organization for independence began in the mid-1930s, and was granted gradually by the British starting in the ’40s and ’50s to be completed in 1962. He painted white people playing tennis or in full equestrian gear — doing things that black Jamaicans could not do. He made a portrait of a sneering President Franklin Roosevelt after the United States leased Little Goat Island and used it as a naval air base for three years during World War II. The United States also took nearby land on Jamaica proper for an emergency runway, displacing three villages. One of them, Sandy Gully became the title of one of Dunkley best sculptures, a seated male figure that resembles a more alert, even angry version of “The Thinker.”
It could also be argued that many of Dunkley’s natural forms almost bristle with latent power waiting to be transformed into action. This seems especially the case with one of the greatest Dunkleys here — “Banana Plantation” (around 1945). It reflects on his time in Cuba with equally fecund depictions of leaves and fruit and a large, if not giant, tense rabbit in its burrow, about to eat a banana, listening for a signal.
Another artist who springs immediately to mind in front of Dunkley’s paintings is Samuel Palmer (1805-1881), a central figure in British Romanticism whose early ink drawings of landscapes, inspired by his discovery of medieval art, share Dunkley’s compressed space and intense spirituality. It would be interesting if further research into Dunkley’s travels and his exposure to art included glimpses of Palmer’s world. But only interesting. Dunkley’s powers of absorption and transformation were very much his own, as is the world he invented with them.
John Dunkley: Neither Day Nor Night
Through Feb. 20 at the American Folk Art Museum, 2 Lincoln Square, Manhattan; folkartmuseum.org.