Sean Duffy at Deep River
Nestled in the bosom of the Al's Bar/Bloom's General Store/Spanish Kitchen Studios 'Downtown Arts Area’, Daniel 'I'm glad I'm not white' Martinez and associates’ Deep River gallery is a jewel of art world exactitude in the morass of 'throw it against the wall and if it sticks call it art' inclusiveness that endears to us such sprawling extravagances as the annual DADA and Brewery free-for-alls. In spite of the 'No Art Critics Allowed' lettered on the door beneath the exquisitely designed logo, the tone of the space, both in its nascent programming (slated to run for five years), and in its immaculately groomed physical appearance is nothing if not critical. Eschewing sales or even an office space, the concept reeks of 'giving something back to the community', but in practice comes across more like planting a precise depth charge of canny, self conscious art world savoir-faire in the sore of an increasingly disenfranchised rank and file. But the interference runs both ways.
I'd heard rumors of Sean Duffy's Captain Kirk art from a couple of friends-of-friends-of over the last year and a half, filing it in my head as something that probably sounded better than it actually looked. When I finally got to see 'teach me to love' at Deep River, a show consisting of 6 single or grouped images culled from the original Star Trek series, I knew the work was good, but the strange dislocation of the venue made me suspicious that the 'paintings' were remarkable, at least in part, by association. It took two subsequent tours of inspection to finally make up my mind. The truth is, this work rattles prevailing salon formula conventions as much as it insinuates them into the coagulated undertow.
Duffy's procedure is worth detailing at some length: after choosing an appropriate image to appropriate, he reduces it to three or four posterized color shapes. These he cuts out of corresponding bolts of colored shag fun-fur, which are assembled to recreate the TV still, curved corners and all. The 27 to 74 inch rug-screens that result are stretched over bulging curved support structures, combed down flat, then covered with clear taut upholstery-strength vinyl. The final objects resemble super-saturated cathode ray tubes distended just this side of bursting with a seething polychrome electricity. With their deft handling of current painting tropes- the material-fetishism that avoids any trace of actual paint, and the slight and redundant structural tweaking- these sleek wall modules at first recall the embarrassment of candies exuded by local junior achievers. But almost immediately we recognize the apposite melding of medium and message, not only in the case of trendy formal issues but with ongoing concerns central to the language of painting about surface and edge, the historical relationship of pictures to ‘nature’, and the chasm between contemporary painting and the actual visual environment we inhabit.
My favorite work in the show was the triptych ‘Beam Down’, consisting of a classic guide to Presence, Absence, and the limbo in-between in the form of first, a featureless green monochrome field, followed by a shimmering but also featureless materialization dividing the green’s midst, finally resolved in the third panel as the Enterprise landing party. This basic trichotomy exemplifies a further deeply embedded theme to Duffy’s work: bodies. By the same token that the work manages simultaneous cool intellectual ironic distance and sad, very funny, sensual abandonment with their luxuriant tactile surfaces contained in slick cool isolation tankage, so the images offer us hyper-abstracted depictions of somatic dissolution, convergence, and doubling in narrative fragments that convey their sexy and violent melodramatic nexus, even if the particulars of the specific episode elude us. If memory serves, quadratych ‘The Kiss’ depicts the erotic disintegration of the anti-matter false Kirk as he storms what he knows will be a fatal shore. Or something. Eros and Thanatos are nevertheless merged in a bleeding Technicolor passion play that would make Bataille shit.
Less momentous psychological dynamics also play themselves out in the Kirk work- issues more closely in line with those of Gene Rodenberry's American visions, such as the mechanisms of masculine identity, the personal political repercussions of colonialism, and the viability of individual identity as an existential given. But whatever the analytical fallout from Duffy's work, its conceptual qualities are melded indelibly at a pre-verbal level with its formal, material aspect. Rather than following fashion by ditching one for the other, or grafting them together Frankenstein style, Duffy seeks out the middle way, and is thereby able to pick out actual unexplored terrain to discover. And he imbeds it in such sweetly seductive sensual language that its intricacies open to us effortlessly, guiltlessly, as if they were just occurring. If 'Deep River's five year mission can hold to this level of ambition and quality, Los Angeles will be party some strange new worlds. I bid them boldly go.
Doug Harvey is definitely humanoid, despite the distortion.
Published in Art issues. Summer 1998