“For me, art was always about color before I was good enough ever to attempt a drawing or painting,” says A.J. Dungan. “When I went to the hardware store with my dad, I was mesmerized by the paint samples.”
Dungan has served a long apprenticeship with color, beginning in his teens, when he began studies at the Rochester Institute of Technology in upper New York State, where he took courses in painting, printmaking, and photography. “I had a very old-school art education, a Pratt kind of education,” he recalls. “The courses were in two- and three-dimensional design, creative thinking, painting, and drawing.”
After graduation, Dungan embarked on a more practical calling, accepting what was called a “color apprenticeship” with a printing shop in Rochester (this was in the late ’80s, well before computers took over so many of the technical aspects of bringing photography to the page). “Everything was done by hand,” he says. Trained as a color separator, the artist became adept at the technical aspects of getting a photograph to look the way an art director wanted it to look. “A photographer would come up from the city with 40 or 50 images, and we would have to decide what would give us the best results.”
He was always painting on the side, and discovered that “looking at hundreds of images a week taught me how to read an image, how to analyze paintings.” For decades Dungan’s work was largely abstract, influenced by artists as diverse as Duchamp and Albers. “I started with abstraction because it was harder, and I wanted to understand what makes a great painting.” Now, he says thinks there’s “too much of it out there.”
Eight years ago he began pursuing the figure “to have a dialogue with people who didn’t understand art, but could appreciate it. Working with gestures, poses, expressions on a face opens up another conversation.” His latest canvases are smash-ups of the nude, often in conventional studio poses, realized through vigorous line and patches of flat, often off-key color—industrial grays, rusty reds, and sour yellow ocher. When I ask if a certain level of violence is intended, he answers, “I call it energy.”
As in works of de Kooning or Diebenkorn, it’s obvious that Dungan has a solid grounding in figurative art and he still goes to a life-drawing class one night a week. “But I work so fast and overpaint so much,” he says. “I get the basic feeling from the model and then take a photo with my phone.”
His latest series is what he calls a “story board” sequence, paintings that are individual yet interconnected with one another. “The common narrative will be a person or persons holding an abstract object and responding emotionally and physically to that object. The initial rough sketches tie each work to the next using graphics, composition, and color. In one painting the figure might be hiding the object; in another, destroying it.”
Dungan shows with four or five galleries, mainly in Rochester. One of the best established is the Oxford Gallery, which has been around for four decades and focuses primarily on realist artists from the 18th century to the present.
The artist still holds down a nine-to-five job working at Excelsus Solutions in Rochester, which specializes in large-format printing, and after hours paints in a basement studio in his house. “While dinner’s cooking, I’ll change my clothes and then head downstairs. In the morning, I have a cup of coffee and then find time to paint before work. If I get up in the middle of the night, I go downstairs and work some more.” When asked if he doesn’t find that sort of schedule grueling, he says that one activity feeds the other. “My job in imaging, photography, retouching, and design in the commercial realm blends well with the fine-art pursuits. I find it relaxing to come home and resume work on my own canvases while doing the creative problem solving I do during the day. It’s a nice way to wind down or warm up.