We don't need to see anything out of the ordinary. We already see so much. - Robert Walser
I AM LEARNING TO SEE AGAIN. For a long time, I didn’t really. Everything passed by in a blur of busyness. But now the world in all its peculiar beauty is coming back to me. There are trees and sky here, cars and bicycles. There are sprinklers and fields and avocados. These things were here all along, waiting to be seen, but it took Jessica Dunne’s work to illuminate them for me.
Dunne takes as her subject what others might overlook, the small, the modest, the everyday, and then transforms them with the force of her attention. And so in her Wyoming pictures, we see not only that famous endless sky but also the way light shines on a simple pump faucet. We see a sprinkler, a familiar sight in this dry land, become something else entirely, more tree than tool, its water branching magnificently into the air. Even the most humble of subjects, a lunch bag, is surprising here; observed with Dunne’s characteristic tenderness, the remnants of a Ucross lunch placed beside a half-glimpsed letter undergoes some sort of extraordinary alchemy, becoming infused with a deep sense of longing. “ No ideas but in things”, the poet William Carlos Williams once said and this simple but revolutionary philosophy informs these paintings and prints as well.
Dunne’s eye for the overlooked, for the unseen or too familiarly seen, is particularly evident in her San Francisco landscapes. San Francisco is a city which is all too often glimpsed through a haze of habit (That bridge! That fog! Those trolleys!), but she turns it into something entirely unexpected, the last stop on an eerie American road trip. I lived in San Francisco for four years and it often seemed to me a lovely but trifling place, full of people who falsely mythologized themselves as great rebels and romantics, but Dunne’s painting make me see this for the glib characterization it is. In her haunting prints and paintings, there is a dark and true romance to the city, a sense that one is at the very edge (and end) of things. In these peopleless cityscapes, we are forced to see what a bleak and beautiful place man has made, one where the flickering lights of the highway are as seductive as stars.
In the end though, Dunne is not an apocalyptic painter. Her eye is too generous for that, I think. When I look at these Wyoming and San Francisco pictures, I return again and again to that feeling of tenderness, to her striking ability to find a place in her work for things both great and small. But the true brilliance of her art lies in the fact that this tenderness exists alongside something much darker, a vision of this world as it wavers before our eyes. Look, she says, truly look. While there is still a world to see.
Essay by novelist Jenny Offill for the exhibition Jessica Dunne: The Force of Attention at the Ucross Foundation in 2009.