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We begin as children, studying life and gauging our place in the scheme of things. Early on, we realize that someone out there must be keeping score. The gold-embossed certificates we received as grammar school achievers (for whatever it was we did) were one way to keep track—if not for us, then for our parents. For better or worse, report cards meant little to me, though I could read the letters and anticipate how my parents might react—most often in frustration, at times with filial pride. The academics of high school were close to meaningless for me, and it wasn’t until my college days at Presbyterian College that I found a social and scholastic context in which to grow.  Somewhere in the midst of that fertile environment, I came to understand the secret that my very Southern-ness was at the heart of where I had come from and a guide for the way ahead. Reading Faulkner and then James Dickey, I understood.

Were I not an art dealer, what would I do? Maybe I would farm, but that would rob me of my favorite avocation. I buy and sell pictures for profit; others collect pictures as I farm. My college studies allowed exposure to English and history, science and religion, music, some athletics, and even an accounting course under some fellow who allowed me a C without any understanding on my part of the concept of depreciation. I have learned since. Through and despite it all (and with almost no understanding of how to negotiate the social currents), I believe I figured out who the future leaders among my classmates were and have relied on those relationships ever since. 

I did not leave those undergraduate years equipped to buy and sell paintings because I understood art, but because that experience had awakened in me an interest in the larger world before me and prepared me to embrace what that world—no, universe—offered. There are others who have come to dealing in such things by a similar road. Not one among us has a piece of parchment that says “Art Dealer.”

And who, pray tell, has a certificate that says “Southerner?” The real ones do not have to, but wear the cloak. Tarleton Blackwell’s Hog Series is so outrageous—so born in the sandhills Southern—that, as Manhattan’s Howard Godel might say, “You can’t make this stuff up.” I loved these pictures from the first glimpse of a hairy pig’s snout on canvas, be they the anthropomorphic forms on a Harley or pigs counting chickens. I count it an honor that Tarleton would include me in this series; I am Bush Hog. My roots long for the nineteenth century, but Tarleton is a creative genius of this time. I am blessed to count him a friend. Tarleton is quiet and measured in his person and prose, in contrast to the artist Bill Dunlap, who claims he is a redneck just passing through. 

I met Tarleton on a phone call—me to him—extended just to tell him how much I liked his work. I met Bill in a bar in Augusta after he spoke at a function at the Morris Museum of Art in—I don’t know—maybe 2004. Not that I have had occasion to doubt my Southern bona fides, but an evening with Bill made me think I’d earned a few more of those certificates. We each knew of the other, but had never before shared a tale or a glass, though we have shared many since. Bill is equal to Mississippi’s best storytellers and while his art is of Mississippi as well, it transcends state lines. He is a modern master of the South.

Bill and Tarleton are the South.  I wish I could have done something more to have advanced each of their already stellar careers. My limited success with living painters may have more to do with my perception of myself as a dealer in the dead ones, rather than as a promoter of living personalities. Surely my clients see me that way.

The sale of important paintings to premier museums and impressive private collections has given our gallery’s dossier legitimacy and even a certain patina. Obviously, it all comes back to the quality of the inventory, but it is the veneer of time—and the accumulation of those so-called certificates—that makes the next offer easier. From the beginning, we have worked diligently to thoroughly document the paintings we handle. Research and writing by independent scholars has carried its own cost, expenses that can’t always be justified by the bottom line. But I believe that the privilege of owning these treasures, however temporarily, brings with it certain responsibilities. Scholarship—much like conservation—is stewardship. Paintings, like people, can go a little bit farther with the right credentials.

William Ralph Dunlap (b. 1944)
Water Side--Iris Watch (2004)
Mixed media
51 1/2 x 44 inches
Signature Details: Lower right, lower left
Owner: The Johnson Collection, Spartanburg, South Carolina
1451 River Road · Yemassee, SC 29945 · 843.412.8738
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