Artists Melissa Dunn and Hamlett Dobbins are trying something a little new and a little crazy. Dobbins is working to convert the front room of his home and studio -- a space that he shares with his expectant wife and 2-year-old daughter -- into an art gallery. Dunn, the first artist to exhibit at Material, the tiny art space at 2553 Broad, is ditching her old narrative painting style and plunging headlong into abstraction.
Dunn isn't a folk artist. "I used to get 'You remind me of a folk artist' from people all the time," she says, sounding a little disappointed. "And to tell you the truth, it always drove me a little crazy, because I wasn't even looking at folk artists. I was looking at artists like Willem De Kooning and Jean-Michel Basquiat and people like that. I did stick all of this imagery in my paintings that was sort of 27-year-old rock-and-roll angst imagery, and maybe that's where the folk-art thing came from. Maybe all of that imagery came off as this naive thing."
For the past 10 years, Dunn has painted interior spaces with warped perspectives, heavy childlike lines, and a palate of raw, unmixed colors, leaning heavily toward sickly green and cautionary orange. She's been an occasionally cynical but always emotional storyteller, with each painting functioning as a new paragraph in a grimy epic of enduring isolation. Her work from the late 1990s, influenced heavily by German expressionism and by Watching, the disquieting last novel from Memphis author John Fergus Ryan, was domestic and humane. It could also be perverse without being the least bit pornographic.
"As I've always understood it, folk art and regional art implied uninformed, uneducated, and ignorant," Dunn says. "So I guess I just stood up one day and said, 'If this is what people are getting from this, then I'm obviously feeding them the wrong things.'"
Dunn's exhibit of new work, "38 N. McLean," features small, colorful abstract works that might easily be mistaken for landscape painting or figure studies.
"I haven't been able to get my paintings flat," she says. "I'm not working in a narrative style, but I still like paintings that I can get inside of and walk around."
Dobbins says the paintings complement the space he purchased in June and has been steadily renovating since. "To me, this is the perfect-sized space to showcase the work of an artist working in a typical apartment studio," he says.
"Artists are always asking me where they can find a good, small space [to exhibit their work]," Dobbins explains. "All the [rental] spaces in town where an artist can get a show are big spaces. Marshall Arts, for example, is huge, and unless you have a bunch of friends or a bunch of people that can team up to put together these shows, you just can't fill the space."
Dobbins is, by his own description, "definitely not a dealer," and he prefers to call Material an "art space" rather than a gallery.
"I'm not actively going out and saying to people, 'Hey, you've really got to come out and see Melissa Dunn's paintings, and you've got to buy 80 paintings, and blah, blah, blah.' It's not a gallery. And I'm not charging any kind of commission on anything Melissa sells either. A lot of places in town, like the David Lusk Gallery, do charge a commission. But David's got four full-time employees calling people, bringing people into the gallery, and selling paintings. If you aren't doing that sort of thing, why would you charge commission?"
Dobbins teaches and manages the Clough-Hanson Gallery at Rhodes College. He serves on the advisory board for Delta Axis and has previously worked with Number, and the Powerhouse. Dobbins wants his new art space to showcase one artist a month but says he doesn't have time to manage two galleries and be a working artist, family man, and art dealer.
"A lot [of the artists] we'll be showing are friends and people we know and trust," Dobbins says, explaining the hazards of turning his home into a public space. "It's tricky." he says. "We live upstairs, so I can't just let some grad student or some kid who's scraped up $200 [to rent the space] have the key to my house."
Dunn and Dobbins have known one another since they shared studio space at Marshall Arts Gallery. "Hamlett is one of the first people I showed any of the new work to," Dunn says. "I'd been working on this body of work for two and a half years and nobody had seen it. And he came over for a studio visit, and he just said, 'Let's show it.'"
"38 N. McLean" opens at Material on Friday, December 10th at 6 p.m. It will also be open to the public on Saturday, December 11th, from 1-5 p.m. and by appointment throughout December.