Catalogue Essay by Steve Cox
Tom Dunn is a narrative painter. He makes pictures that tell stories. He is also a fan of music and movies. Like most of us he is interested in the lives of the glamorous and the celebrated and in the legends that slowly accrete around them like barnacles. It is with the fullness of a fan’s heart that he has approached the work for this exhibition. He is as interested in the highs of a celebrated career as he is in the spectacular lows, which are the flipside of the glamour card: the hopeful starlet’s obligatory ordeal on the casting couch; the Dionysian debauchery of terminally adolescent rock stars; the fading star’s gargantuan appetite for booze and drugs; the big shot Las Vegas mobster whose luck finally trickled out; the director’s penchant for too-young charms.
Rumours, gossip and scandal follow the stars like paparazzi and, in the bleak spotlight of their darkest hour, they are revealed as being the same as the rest of us – weak, inept, fallible, clumsy, human. Like characters in a Greek tragedy, these falling stars act out their scripts of ego and excess, destined to suffer consequences every bit as lethal, bloody and tragic as those in the ancient dramas.
There is a strong element of schadenfreude present in this exhibition, which reflects the secret desire we all share that the high and mighty should topple. And the higher and mightier they are, the harder we wish them to crash. That would seem the very least they can do in exchange for our adulation – it is the dark side of the dream of fame.
Dunn has cast his net widely in his search for suitable subjects for this exhibition. But one source in particular has inspired him; two books written by former Hollywood child actor, occultist and avant-garde film maker, Kenneth Anger. The grotesquely mesmerising Hollywood Babylon (volumes one and two) contains a smorgasbord of salacious morsels and the painter has feasted on the casualties.
Shielded from mundane reality, the famous and the fabulous are isolated from the general public in luxurious seclusion. For a brief while, they may bask in the special glow that is conferred upon ‘the chosen’; but it is a precarious existence, one that can shatter under the weight of its own flimsy fantasy. And when it does, we can all share in the satisfaction that comes from witnessing the fall of one more unfortunate who thought he/she had wings.
These wings feature obliquely in the series of paintings based on the expensive silk underwear of various female stars. Like butterflies pinned to a board, these garments appear as trophies next to the catalogued details of their owners. Dunn almost invites the viewer to ‘collect the whole set’ in a business where one is only as useful as one’s last good film. ‘Show business’ is here taken literally.
Dunn understands the human condition. He knows that it is both tragic and comic at the same moment and he is able to see the beauty in the squalour. The American photographer Diane Arbus once said that, when she looked at the people around her it was like watching ‘slow motion smash-ups’. This exhibition is a mini catalogue of such ‘smash ups’. The subjects are not gods, but human beings, being human.