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Dennis Cunningham: The last catch

Sue Taylor considers the work of Dennis Cunningham, whose deft linocuts of Oregon fishing reflect the fabric of life in the state. Cunningham died last week.



Editor’s Note: Artist Dennis Cunningham, born in Medford, Oregon, on July 5, 1949, died on April 3 after a long illness, according to his niece, Marianne Love-Day. He raised the profile of block printing in the state both through his work and his teaching at Marylhurst University. He is survived by his sister Carol Baldridge, daughter Selena Cunningham-Delano, and nieces Love-Day and Amy Love-Bichsel.

“You can identify the artist through his work.” So Dennis Cunningham posted on his website, and though it may not always hold true, it was at least true for him as a committed regionalist. A native of the Northwest, he was born in Medford and—like that other Oregon original, Terry Toedtemeier, whose photographs celebrate the state’s unique geology—Cunningham married his art to the place he loved.

Dennis L. Cunningham (American, born 1949), Sauvies Island, 1970/1991, linocut on paper, The Vivian and Gordon Gilkey Graphic Arts Collection, © Courtesy of the artist and Froelick Gallery, 91.84.641

His chosen medium was relief printing; more than the obdurate wood block, he preferred softer linoleum, into which he could easily inscribe the irregular curvilinear forms he saw in nature. His landscapes, such as Sauvies Island (1970/91) and Clackamas II (1975/95), are remarkable for the convincing spatial depth he achieved through the very limited means available in linocut. Relying only on the contrast of black ink on white paper and on the quality and direction of incised line, he created an inviting, fully three-dimensional, sylvan world of tranquil lakes and streams. More often than not, these scenes include solitary figures engaged in Cunningham’s favorite recreational activity: fishing. 

Dennis L. Cunningham (American, born 1949), Clackamas II, before 2016, linocut on paper, The Vivian and Gordon Gilkey Graphic Arts Collection, 2016.115.121

A witty print from 1983, Pesca Cabeza #7, depicts a profile head in the spirit of the sixteenth-century mannerist Giuseppe Arcimboldo, whose strange personifications of the times of year are composed of seasonal fruits and vegetables—a cucumber nose, a pear for the chin, pea pods for eyelids. Cunningham’s hilarious head is made up entirely of fish. It could be a self-portrait. Indeed, fishing seems to have been a veritable obsession for him. One of his happy creative collaborations was the children’s book he illustrated for Geraldine Pope, The Empty Creel (1995), in which a girl goes fishing with grandpa and comes home disappointed by the big one that got away. In the book, Cunningham’s bold pictures command the whole of every page, with Pope’s economic descriptions and dialogue inserted within small cartouches, reversing the expected relationship of image and text.

Dennis L. Cunningham, Pesca Cabeza #7, 1983, linocut on paper, gift of Esther Podemski and Melvin Hess, Portland Art Museum, 88.24.1

The story is a reminder of how instructive fishing can be, how much it encapsulates aspects of life—the excitement of embarking, the anticipation of success, the waiting, wondering, communing, the sometimes dashed expectations and the necessity of accepting the let down. There is much wisdom to be gained from such experiences. For this reason, fishermen tend to be philosophers and, occasionally, vice versa. 

Cunningham developed an effective device for signaling the thoughts of his fishermen. In Sauvies Island, for instance, we’re given insight into the hopeful reflections of the back-turned figure with rod and creel by means of several small panels that run along the bottom of the print, including an area map with Highway 30 skirting the island, assorted fishing flies, a frying pan with a fish all a’sizzle. The single inset panel in Clackamas II serves a different purpose. It contains a map of Oregon’s rivers, locating the idyllic scene with lone fisherman in a specific geographical space.


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Dennis L. Cunningham (American, born 1949), End of the Line, 1990, linocut on paper, The Vivian and Gordon Gilkey Graphic Arts Collection, © Courtesy of the artist and Froelick Gallery, 1998.46.188

Cunningham’s insets often turn static vignettes into narratives, suggesting memories of or hopes for the past or future respectively, complicating time. In End of the Line (1990), where a boating couple fish alongside a shallow terrace waterfall, three insets expand the timeless image into an anticipatory dream. One schematic inset appears to illustrate the direction to a different fishing spot or perhaps the ideal distance of boat from shore; another shows a fly floating on the water’s surface with a fish approaching from below; a third depicts the prized salmon, the otherwise unseen goal of the day’s enterprise. The title of the print describes the climactic point at which the fly attracts the fish, as seen in the second inset panel; the phrase also evokes a destination or terminus. Rendered poignant by Cunningham’s recent demise, End of the Line offers, at least for this admiring viewer, a consoling fantasy of the artist arriving in his own fisherman’s paradise.

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Photo Joe Cantrell


2 Responses

  1. A wonderful tribute for a wonderful artist and friend, although I hadn’t seen him for awhile. His work always brought me a sense of both peace and playfulness. What he did- he did very well. I’m so happy we have several of those great prints to continue to enjoy. Thank you for this tribute Sue.

  2. Sometimes art can connect us all in ways that not only delight us, but also help us to heal. Dennis did this better than anyone. He mended a broken relationship with his own father who was a Korean war veteran who’s fingers had been cut off when he was captured and held as a POW . ( Dennis was a conscientious objector and refused to fight in Viet Nam. For years, they never spoke. But when Dennis created the pages of a children’s book, it opened an innocent portal —- and his Father broke the ice and asked a local Portland bookstore to purchase a signed copy ( The Empty Creel.) It perplexed Dennis at first, and then delighted him. The two of them ended up fishing together and mending their connection. Dennis taught me to have faith in the details. He believed in clarity —- never live bait, but the hand tied fly. He was, and will always, live on in his art. I was lucky to know him.

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