Jeanne Dunning’s new Baroqueinspired still lifes (all 2010) appear to be a radical departure from the artist’s earlier photographic works centered on human sexuality and the body, usually presented with distortions or embellishments—a closed hand will suggest an anus, for example. In her nine photographs based on the 17th-century vanitas, at Donald Young (her first solo show in Chicago since 2006), Dunning creates dramatic arrangements of overripened fruits and vegetables, bread, wine and cheese set against swaths of black cloth that also speak of mortality and virtue.
However, Dunning’s allegorical banquets soon take on her signature oddities: melons, plums and persimmons sprout green mold and spores, while turnips and bread are cloaked in a fuzzy gray fungus that evokes animal fur. At play are the issues of seduction and repulsion, the beautiful and the grotesque that have occupied the artist for some time. So too is the use of food as a metaphor for carnal pleasure and excess or as a surrogate for the body itself, as in her earlier works where close-up images of tomatoes, for example, recall bodily organs and orifices, or decaying jack-o’-lanterns suggest human corpses.
Following the art historical conventions of genre painting, Dunning organizes her compositions, shot with unwavering attention to detail, using either one-point perspective or strong diagonals that imbue her works with a heightened visual and psychological charge. They also bear a resemblance to the photographs of Laura Letinsky, whose images, conversely rendered in a palette of soft whites, similarly explore the still-life genre and its symbolic meaning.
While Dunning’s vanitas images address fleeting desires of the flesh, her video Me Not Me (2009), on view at the Institute of Visual Arts in Milwaukee, explores the phenomenon in which people, because of various neurological disorders, are disconnected from their own bodies. Shot in a deadpan style similar to the artist’s earlier videos, this 24-minute piece is constructed as a series of vignettes in which performers reenact doctor-patient sessions documented in medical texts by neurologist and psychiatrist Todd E. Feinberg. Many suffer from “alien limb” syndrome, in which patients lose control over an arm, often perceiving it as belonging to someone else. Others are unable to recognize their reflection in a mirror, thinking it a stalker or a distant friend. There is a comic-tragic element to each story, which Dunning presents with a cool, detached eye, once again probing the uneasy territory of the body and our perceptions of self.
Still Life With Grapes and Cheese, 2010, pigment print, 26 1/2 by 37 1/2 inches; at Donald Young.