A few years ago, while driving down the highway at night in my hometown, I was overwhelmed with nostalgia for my childhood. I then realized there was a brownout and—with all the streetlights extinguished—the dark road was as I had experienced it as a child, before we replaced stars with sodium-vapor bulbs. Over the years, on visits to my childhood home, I had been incensed by the new three-story beach “mansions” and tee-shirt dealerships, yet had taken little notice of the street lighting that had altered the nature of night itself. The dark highway was a visual prompt into a memory of my past, something that rarely happens, especially in contrast to the constant reminders of other times through taste, sound and smell.
This is how I came upon my current project, an exploration of night as seen through a car’s windshield. In a few years, the highway power cartel will replace the greenish mercury-vapor and pink sodium-vapor streetlights that dominate my work with sun-like halide bulbs, once again altering our nocturnal world (and my palette). My goal is to get my present experience down on canvas before it disappears.
People sometimes think my work is critical of modern life because my landscapes comprise buildings and cars, not the more traditional trees and fields. In fact, I paint what I paint because I believe my subjects are beautiful. People have also told me they have more fun driving at night after seeing my work. Me too. Observing taillights reflect off wet pavement or comparing the distance at which different colored auras bleed into the mist makes hydroplaning in traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge bearable.
I call myself a painter but I make monotypes and aquatints too. For the monotypes, I develop an image by dabbing etching ink onto a Mylar plate with my fingertips, subtracting the lights with cotton swabs. I then print from the Mylar onto a sheet of paper, and repeat the process over 50 times to create an image. The monotypes are really printed paintings: I make a single copy. The technique enables me to achieve a depth and subtlety of color that I have not found possible in any other medium.
The black and white “spit-bite” aquatints are yet another process. “Spit-bite” means biting the image with a combination of acid and saliva directly into a rosin-coated copper plate. The copper becomes the matrix for several identical prints–an edition. I find the fluid and painterly results worth the unsavory process.
Monotype and spit-bite aquatint combine the freedom of painting with the mysterious quality of printmaking, where ink is pressed into the paper as opposed to resting on the surface. In both techniques the final image is reversed from how I painted it, and contains unexpected marks and nuances. That unpredictability is what draws me to printmaking and, inevitably, sends me fleeing back to the relative comfort of painting.
Jessica Dunne was born in Santa Monica, California, and now lives and works in San Francisco. She received the James D. Phelan Award, a Kala Art Institute Fellowship and a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant.
Her solo shows include the Frye Art Museum, the Fresno Art Museum, The Triton Museum of Art, and the Flaten Museum, Saint Olaf College. She has work in the collections of the Oakland Museum of California, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and the New York Public Library.