Interview with Chris Duncan

Oakland-based artist Chris Duncan is currently exhibiting at the Nakaochiai Gallery. His installation Creation Song is a powerful presence within the intimate gallery space, which has been painted black for the first time, with all outside light shut out.

poster for Chris Duncan

Chris Duncan "Playing Fields"

at Nakaochiai Gallery
in the Shinjuku area
This event has ended - (2006-10-15 - 2006-11-19)

In Interviews by Ashley Rawlings 2006-11-04

Some of his recent paintings are also on show, offering an intriguing opportunity for comparing the similarities and differences between his three-dimensional and two-dimensional work.

 Born in 1974, he grew up in New Jersey and lived in Delaware for a few years before moving to California in 1996, where he has been since. He graduated with a BFA from the California College of Arts and Crafts in 2003. Since 2002, together with Griffin McPartland, he has been producing the zine Hot and Cold, which formed part of the show The Zine Unbound: Kults, Werewolves and Sarcastic Hippies at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco.

How are things going with Hot and Cold?

We started at issue 10 and we’re about to release number 3. Once we’ve finished number 1, our ultimate goal is to find someone to publish an anthology and have a museum exhibition.

How does the zine fit in with the rest of your artwork?

I’ve been making art for roughly ten years. I grew up listening to hardcore punk music, and there were a lot of people I knew producing zines, playing in bands or setting up their own record labels and it was something that I was always impressed with and wanted to do. I felt I learned from that culture but never really had a voice in it. Once I found art making, I realized that within the art scene, at last I could start to do the things that I had learned when I was fourteen.

Your work seems to have changed direction at some point: you used to paint on skateboards, but then you started to paint using birds as a motif.

I used to paint skateboards years ago, at the very beginning. I definitely came from skateboarding and there were these skateboard works I made, like every other skateboard kid. But the birds matter a lot more. It started when my girlfriend at the time and I were on our first date and we saved a morning dove. That moment of saving the bird marked the start of our relationship and it somehow filled everything else. I started making these atmospheric drawings and paintings of birds and it became a metaphor for tons of different things: a bird is such a loaded image on so many different levels.

'If we wanted to' (2005)  Marker, graphite, latex, enamel paint, ink, wood, putty and varnish on paper

The imagery has gradually become more and more abstract since. When did you start doing the paintings and installations like the ones that are on show in this exhibition?

The process started at the same time, about three years ago, but it took longer to get to the paintings because with installation, there are no images to take away, no representational images to dissolve. With painting there’s a long, slow process of getting rid of representation and having it be purely conceptual and abstract.

I’ve been sewing for a really long time, making two-dimensional objects with thread and using sewing as a form of drawing. As time went on I became more interested doing something within a space, but to keep the idea of using thread. With installations I’m basically taking away the paper and using thread to interact with the space.

'Creation Song' (2006)Creation Song (2006)

The way the installation has been set up here makes the perfect focus for contemplation, the cluster of dots on the floor really draws you in when you’re alone in this black room; it’s a spiritual, almost religious feeling to spend time with that work.

Creation Song is the title of a song by Lungfish, and I’m really into that band so on one level it’s a reference to that. But that cluster of dots is very much about a beginning, like the big bang: a creation.

It’s the first installation you’ve made in a black space. What made you decide to make that change?

It was exciting because when this show was in the planning stages, I got an email from the gallery asking if I wanted to paint the whole room black — right before I was about to send an email with the exact same question! I’ve had two exhibitions in the past that have had power cuts on the opening night. One had to be postponed because of it, but at the other the staff just bought candles and went ahead with it. People wandered around this exhibition, looking at the art by candlelight. It was a totally fascinating experience, so making a work in that kind of environment was at the back of my mind for a while.

Creation Song (2006)

How does this installation feel in comparison to others that you’ve made in other spaces?

The installation I did at the Yerba Buena felt very architectural because it was sixty feet tall and went up into the upstairs space. The small, blacked-out room here does give the installation a spiritual feel; it really makes the focus spread beyond the lines, much more so than being in an open white space with windows. The stringwork is very subtle, so if there’s a window to the outside it can distract you with the view. In this completely enclosed, dark room, the walls seem to disappear and it has become about space: if you let yourself go it can feel like the room is a mile long. That’s pretty exciting and it’s something I want to explore in my work from here on.

Close up of the base of 'Creation Song' (2006)

Do you see your three-dimensional work and your two-dimensional work as being about the same thing?

I think aspects of each are connected, yet I feel that the installations are generally more ambiguous and more about energy, color and interacting in the space; they’re more spiritual. I think the two-dimensional works have that quality as well, but they tend to be more topical.

From left to right: 'We walk in line', 'The Playing Field #2', 'The Playing Field #3 (everything is everything or something: daylight disappointments)', 'Power', 'World War Three', 'The End' (2006)

There’s a distinct progression of form through this set of six paintings. Can you take me through the ideas behind them?

The whole series was done over the summer. I started with the two on the left, We walk in line and The Playing Field #2, and then I started to conceptualize them afterwards. The Playing Field is a topical view of society and how people interact with each other. Then, when thinking about the concept of power, I thought it really comes down to one point in which the powers that be exist, and that they’re untouchable. Most of human life cannot access or make a change to this one thing that affects them so much. As the series progressed it became a depiction of how humans are on a fast track to somewhere that is not safe and not pleasant.

'We walk in line' (2006) 14 x 20cm 'The Playing Field #2' (2006) 14 x 20cm

Power and World War Three seem to be grounded in contemporary fears. Would you say this set of work deals with political issues as well as social ones?

I feel it’s a potential signpost, that if something doesn’t change we’re all going to end up killing each other. Things are so drastic at the moment: not a day or a week goes by without something on the news that is so shocking. So this work is political, but equally it’s just about color exploration.

'Power' (2006) 14 x 20cm'World War Three' (2006) 14 x 20cm

Is it the multicultural society of the San Francisco Bay Area that inspires you to deal with issues of the interconnectedness of society?

There’s this image of multiculturalism and togetherness that people have about the Bay Area, that it’s this pocket of free and radical thinkers, where you can feel the residue of Flower Power and everyone loves one another. Actually living there you see a lot of different types of people, different cultures and subcultures, but as far as I see, there’s really not an interaction between them. That’s really frustrating to me because I grew up in New Jersey around all kinds of people — black, Indian and so on — and it wasn’t even a thought, that’s just how it was.

People in New Jersey feel free to talk each other about race and ask each other where they’re from. It’s raw and there’s interaction there, which I think is far more interesting than somewhere more politically correct. It stresses me out that the only time I can speak to someone who is Ethiopian is in an Ethiopian restaurant. I don’t know why it’s like that or how you could go about changing that. I guess it’s through putting dots on paper that I try to think about these issues.

But these themes of human interaction in your work are meant on a universal level, aren’t they.

Yeah, it’s about the human situation as a whole. The social situation in San Francisco is just what affects me on a personal level.

What are you doing next?

This show is part of three solo shows I’m doing this year. I’ve just finished the first at the Motel Gallery in Portland, called Dark Times, which was predominantly five or six pieces that were all on black ground and had abstract imagery. After this exhibition, I’ll be showing at the Jeff Bailey Gallery in New York from November. It’s called The Continued Exploitation of Pink and Brown. There’s literally a lot of pink and brown in this body of work — it’s a color combination that I love and use a lot — but also conceptually it’s obviously got other connotations.

Ashley Rawlings

Ashley Rawlings. Ashley Rawlings was the editor of TABlog from 2006 to 2008. More information about his work can be found at » See other writings


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