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This is the Path You Chose

The Dark Cartoonery of Bill Dunlap

"Sex, death, and booze," admits San Francisco painter Bill Dunlap. "That's basically what I'm about." As easy as it is for Dunlap to deconstruct his iconic depictions of virtue and vice, there's a deeper resonance within the cartoonish nature of his work that arises from the unsettling but inevitable acceptance of life's temptations. There's also a not-so-subtle sense of humor and irony evident from both the colorful, rubbery style of his subjects and the seemingly incongruent subtitles that often accompany them. These childlike expressions actually reveal damage and danger, but it's the kind of danger that's welcome, necessary, human; the kind that's overcome by a good hazy binge, until tomorrow's first disappointment.

Though he'd been drawing and doodling his whole life, Dunlap was thirty years old before he began to take his artwork seriously. As a child growing up in rural West Virginia, he was never encouraged to be creative; he was the first member of his family to attend college. "I was a total bumpkin," he confides. "There were no paved roads in my town." After college and travels through DC, New York, and Japan, he made the move to San Francisco in 1994. Two years later he graduated from SF State with a Master's Degree in design and founded a web design company. The slick, direct nature of the Internet helped Dunlap sharpen his eye for line, balance, and contrast, and in 2000 his firm was featured prominently in the book Color Harmony for the Web by Cailan Boyle. A year later the dot.bomb dropped and his firm was no more. It was then he turned his full attention to painting.

"I had been doing illustration for a few years, stuff for Progressive, Pulse!, the Chronicle Sunday Section, San Francisco Examiner Magazine," he says. Even his early drawings contain the icons that populate his current work: crescent moons, barking dogs, skulls, stars, crosses. These emblems, along with copious busty female forms and sullen men in cowboy hats, comprise the symbolic language of his Dunlap's visual world. "It's like the artist's vocabulary," he explains. "Shorthand." And with these simple images a greater story begins to unfold; through their repetition his work takes on greater meaning. A sense of foreboding is wrought by laughing skulls and XXX-marked whisky bottles hovering behind solitary figures. But the bright, flat colors and sharply outlined figures express a sense of childlike ignorance -- or perhaps a more adult denial -- of the threats that await them.

An admirer of the post-World War I German expressionists, most notably the political paintings and illustrations of George Grosz, Dunlap uses dark outlines to separate his subjects from their surroundings. It's a simplistic, comic book-like effect that imparts a sense of urgency and contrast. Juxtaposing his images with words further elaborates the comic book feel, and the subtitles frequently confound the literal interpretation of the piece. "That's because I want to use words in a more provocative way," he explains, than just simple exposition. You Are Enslaved by your Desires, written in flowing script, runs along the bottom of a painting of a buxom, garter-belted woman. A blocky pastoral landscape confirms Nature is fine without you. Somehow, despite their detached, even cruel admonitions, these paintings still elicit a wry smile.

Not so for all of Dunlap's work, however. His latest project consists of 15 paintings meant to be displayed in a single room accompanied by the atonal and wholly disturbing music of modern Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki. Penderecki's dark, dissonant "Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima" inspired Dunlap's most ghoulish, visceral work, and indicates the themes he would like to further explore. "We're losing our intellectual and cultural heritage," he says. "If everything's cool, or rad, then everything is trivial. Art shouldn't be shallow, it should be powerful. It should have input. The more my vision and style gels, the clearer my voice becomes. And the more people will understand."

Bill Dunlap's work is currently on display in the front windows of Mezzanine (444 Jessie St.), at the bar Lit (6th and Mission), and will go up inside Brainwash (1122 Folsom) in April. You can also check it out on the web at,, and at