Delano Dunn: Snowfall in LA
September 23 through October 28th, 2021
By EMANN ODUFU, October 2021
Delano Dunn's Snowfall in LA places us deep into a complicated web of introspection by the artist. On one end it chronicles a difficult time in his life dealing with a depressive episode and a resulting substance abuse problem during the height of the pandemic. On the other end, it channels the frustration and angst of this period of his life into an unsettling critique of the representation of Black figures and the Black bodies in canonical history. In this exhibition, Delano continues to do what he does best in re-contextualizing historical images, many of which he pulled from illustrations of Uncle Tom's Cabin and various vintage comic books. He simultaneously pulls the viewer in with his colorful backgrounds, cute wallpapers, and shiny embellishments, only to pull the veil away revealing a darker and more sordid reality. In doing this, Delano plays the master chef, mixing the perfect combination of sweet candy and bitter medicine to almost Trojan Horse the viewer into the analysis of some of the darker aspects of history. The result is a disruption to any fantasy of an equal, just, or even post-racial society that the viewer may possess.
The title, Snowfall in LA, refers to the period of time in which Delano was creating the exhibition as being something of an anomaly in his life. It does not rain in Southern California and definitely does not snow in LA, and similarly, Delano's depressive mind state and experimentation with drugs was something that was unusual for him. Growing up in South Central LA to a father that was a victim of the crack epidemic, drugs were something Delano stayed away from for all of his life for fear of repeating his father's mistakes. However, in this period of time, it was his salvation in his ongoing battle with his depression and a way to channel his creativity.
"I started working on the show in the spring of 2020,” Dunn explained. “But because of the depression, I had been hitting these roadblocks, unable to get my thoughts to coalesce and having all these starts and stops. As it got progressively worse, I kind of shut down. I would panic and get really nervous before going into the studio. So, I would smoke weed, hoping that the smoke would help me push through that, and it would, but I still had this fear of the work. I don't know if saying the drugs helped is the right thing to say, but specifically with the piece, The Light in My Eyes, maybe it's valid. This was the piece I was working on right before the darkest time. I had it up in the house, my family was gone, and they were in Cincinnati at the time. This piece was directly affected by substance abuse. It was in the living room, and every time I saw it, it literally freaked me out."
As with much of Delano's work, various characters find their way into multiple pieces throughout the exhibition. The figure of Uncle Tom plays a central role in Snowfall in LA. A few years back, Delano came across a Classics Illustrated comic book adaptation of Uncle Tom's Cabin, the famed anti-slavery manifesto originally written by Harriet Beecher Stowe. He was amazed by how the illustrations in this comic book adaptation were so vibrant and highly contrasted those in the original novel that showcased Blacks in a subservient and dimwitted light. After the exhibition, he realized that his usage of Uncle Tom imagery was also reflective of his own inner turmoil.
"It didn't become important to me until after the work was done,” explained the artist. “It was like, I guess this may be you trying to escape whatever was going on. In our society, we refer to an “Uncle Tom” as a sellout. There have been many times in my life where people have presumed, ‘I'm not Black enough’ or stuff like that. But how do you define that? Do you think Blackness is just one monolith that's moving in the same direction like a flock of birds? Do you think we have some hive mind?"
Another of the more integral characters that permeate Snowfall in LA are the Gold Dust Twins. Gold Dust was a washing powder and all-purpose cleaning agent that rose to prominence in the early 1900s. The Gold Dust Twins, Goldie and Dustie, were the faces of the product and were a cartoonish pair of bald Black children of unspecified gender, wearing tutus and often depicted cleaning and drying dishes in a washtub. They can be seen throughout the pieces, cleaning and purifying the fantasy world of Snowfall in LA, starkly contrasting the at times jarring shoe polish stains that appear on many of the exhibition's pieces. Some other characters that appear are a mysterious Black man with a sword-who Delano says is either Alexander Dumas or one of his family members-a picture of Frederick Douglas, and a Black cowboy standing confidently with a gun. These figures all came from the Golden Legacy comic book and exist as the antithesis of the representations of the Gold Dust Twins and Uncle Tom characters.
The music Delano was listening to during this time also played an integral role in the creation of the exhibition. Usually, Delano listens to music that is totally opposite to the work he creates, but in this time, because of the frustration, anger, and confusion that characterized his mental state, Delano began listening to more aggressive music, finding kinship with hip-hop and gangster rap. His influences ranged from Steely Dan to 2pac, Drake and Future, Juvenile, Do or Die, Pimp C, Lil Baby, Lil Durk, Jim Jones and Dom Kennedy to name a few.
"Not all the songs got represented in the artworks,” Dunn explained. “But at the end, I started doing this process whereby I began figuring out what I'm talking about in each painting and how it is reflected. The Steely Dan song I used is about how once you've exhausted all possibilities; you start going to extremes to find that relief. The hip-hop songs, specifically the 2pac and Drake tracks, are about this feeling, particularly during the high, where I felt like this baller who was living this hip-hop fantasy of spending all this money, and it's something I had never really done so I was sort of vicariously living through the music."
In its best moments, Delano's exhibition Snowfall in LA captures the essence of the duality which one must possess to survive in modern society. At times it feels as if we are creatures of contradiction trying to find ourselves and make sense of a world that gets more confusing the further you dig. In his work, the vibrant colors echo fleeting visions of a utopia or the potential of a better future, something which is characteristic of Afro-Futurism, but the work also warns of the pitfalls of sipping the Kool-Aid and thinking that the ghosts of the past will ever not be just beneath the surface. Delano's exhibition is on view at Montague Contemporary in Chelsea until October 28th. WM
Emann Odufu is a freelance, emerging art and culture critic, curator, and filmaker who has written articles about assorted art shows over the past year. His work can be found in publications such as the NY Times, Hyperallergic, Brooklyn Rail, Office Magazine and Document Journal. Most recently he has curated Money, a solo exhibition of artist Samuel Stabler, currently on display at the National Arts Club.
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