I feel a certain kinship toward Chris Duncan – his artwork resonates with me in a way that is very utopian. His work is highly crafted, and draws inspiration from a lot of the early work of Bauhaus teachers whom I dig a lot for their sheer weirdness. (For example, Johannes Itten, the influential Bauhaus color theorist was a disciple of Mazdaznan, a mystic meditative religion founded in the United States in the late 19th Century. Itten’s color theory explorations went as far as to recommend a color-based diet, like eating only blue things for a week, for his students at the Bauhaus.)
Chris’ work bears a similar freak flag conceptually, investigating essential bases of visual art: form, light, and color. There is an obsessive devotion to craft in his work- his installations of thousands of meticulously strung planes of fluorescent colored thread, hand-sewn canvases of celestial pinnacles, and masses of millions of miniscule dots of acrylic paint on sculptures, found objects, and canvases. It is Duncan’s quest to reveal the essence of his subject matter, skipping easy representation in his more recent works, that makes me enjoy it so much. I guess I’m still a bit of a dreamer, too, and that makes me like his stuff so much.
Written by Ian lynam
Duncan will be showing his latest collection of work, titled “Playing Fields” at Nakaochiai Gallery, an independent exhibition space in Shinjuku, Tokyo from October 15th through November 19, 2006. Here is a little interview about his background, his broad variety of works and the concepts behind his colorful installations.
Chris, where are you from originally?
I grew up different suburbs of New Jersey: first Woodbridge, then Bricktown. When I was 14 we moved to Delaware.
When did you first start making art?
When I was 21 I moved to Lake Tahoe California for a winter. I got so bummed out on the same party with the same people every night that I started to stay home and draw. That was in 1996.
Detail, Dots, 2006
Detail, Dots, 2006
How do you correlate art-making and D.I.Y. punk life?
Well, when I make stuff its on my own watch, and my own rules. Conceptually, my work totally references class and race, human struggle, and things that have been talked a lot about in the punk rock hardcore music. I’ve been tripping out alot on the Minutemen) lately.
You co-edit and co-publish a limited-edition art compilation zine called Hot & Cold. It comes out in editions of 150, each issue’s Zip-loc bag crammed to the gills with posters, stickers, cds, vegan cookbooks, prints, and assorted other ephemera. Contributors to the magazine include Souther Salazar, Jeremy Fish, Lori D, Maya Hayuk, David D’Andrea, Chrissy Piper, Vic Blue, Andy Jenkins and John Darnielle among many others. And the magazine was recently acquisitioned by The New York Museum of Modern Art… What is the story behind Hot & Cold?
My really good friend Griffin McPartland and I had talked about doing a project together for a while and I finally got him to commit to a zine that would mix our un-mixable asthetics. Once we started we realized we wanted to use art work from our friends too. Then it just snowballed. We have made a steady effort to out do ourselves with each issue. We started in 2002 with issue 10 and are counting down. Once we get to 0 its over. We have been kicking around the idea of shopping for publishers to release a hot and cold anthology. We are currently on the verge of releasing issue three.
Is there a favorite exhibition of work that you have participated in?
I was in a show at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts called THE ZINE UNBOUND: Kults, Werewolves and Sarcastic Hippies last year. That was totally epic for me. Not only was my work in a really great institution, but Hot & Cold was featured along with Trinie Dalton and K-48. The show was curated by Berin Golonu who had seen Hot and Cold around and was impressed with our deal, so she invited us along.
Moment Monument, 2004.
How important is living in Oakland to your work? (I know for Griffin that being a Bay Area citizen is kind of central to his character)
Oakland is home. It is quiet and loud, beautiful and painfully ugly. There are real people in Oakland living real lives. It’s inspiring.
You just showed your art work in Portland at Motel Gallery. How was that?
I totally fell in love with Portland. It is a pretty magical place. Affordable, good food, good coffee and good people. As far as the show, Jenn Armbrust was great to work with and very supportive of what I wanted to do.
Detail of installation from Duncan’s recent show at Motel in Portland, Oregon
Now to understanding your art work better, your explanation is going to help here a lot: outside of dumbo punk stuff, I would like to talk about what your work means outside of pure formalism. Geometry, and depicting pinnacles and voids play heavily into your work. Can you explain what you are trying to convey through your work? The work is highly crafted- does the sheer amount of handwork that goes into each piece imbue it with something essential for you?
Well all the lines and dot and geometry are references to my need to strip things down to there foundation. I want to reduce images and ideas to the energy that they convey/create. At times I’m trying to depict a moment of clarity, and others, just being completely overwhelmed. Humans overwhelm, disgust, and amaze me. My work is also about connections. Everything is connected somehow. I’m also interested in color relationships. Really into Albers, Rothko and Mondrian right now. It totally trips me out to think that putting two colors together can make you feel so calm and serene, or completely uncomfortable. I want to do both. I also enjoy DuChamp and the DADA. I think if any historical art movement is prevalent and influencial today, it would be DADA.
You are an ardent vegan, and produce commercial designs for shirts, journals, and planners for the Little Otsu – a line of vegan, eco-friendly goods. When did you start working with Little Otsu?
I started working with Otsu pretty close to the beginning. I had heard about the “vegan” store and went and checked it out. I think I had a Born Against button on my jacket and Jeremy (one of the owners) commented. We hit it off from there.
I’ve done several t-shirts for Little Otsu, had a show there, made their sign, I built out some of their first store, and I’ve done a planner and a blank journal…
When did you start working with Poketo (makers of amazing artist wallets)?
i think did my wallet series 2 or 3 years ago. My friend Chris Pew was a part of their first series and I thought it was a cool thing. So I mentioned to him that I would be into doing one. He contacted Ted at Poketo and we went from there. Hot and Cold also collaborated on a wallet with Poketo which came with an issue. That was awesome. Griffin and I cut dollar bills in half and then sewed pages from a bible to the cut-up currency. Those came in the wallet.
You are currently collecting peoples’ stories of their first punk shows for a book. What is your goal with that project?
I enjoy gathering things. I also enjoy how silly and magical life is when you are young and trying to find your place. For me, my formative years going hardcore shows and skateboarding changed my life. I think it did for alot of other people, too. I like the idea of focusing on people when they were awkward kids experiencing a special time. I know after my first couple shows I could never go back to listening to Def Leppard …ever.
What folks’ work do you really enjoy?
Chris Pew, Jen Smith, Needles and Pens, Gregory Lind Gallery, Jeff Bailey Gallery, Alicia McCarthy, Paul Schiek, Mat O’Brien, Kyle Ranson, Jeremy and Claire Weiss, Paul Urich, Veronica Dejesus, Mike Pare, Crust and Dirt, Rebecca Miller, Frank Haines, Ryan Wallace, Joseph Hart, Will Yackulic, and Chris Corales.
Chris, thanks a lot for taking the time out.