Chris Duncan: Punk Rocker to DIY Mystic

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“I have fallen into everything I have ever done,” states 34-year-old Chris Duncan, who moved to the West Coast on a whim some years ago from his native New Jersey. Landing in Oakland, via a stint on the Tahoe slopes, this punk rock die-hard proceeded to get mystical, creating an organic body of work where wood putty, paint, lines of pencil and string, and pink tape converge into cosmic transmissions that suggest clues to the mysteries of the universe.

Though pieces have titles like “The Mess We’ve Made and the Year It Took to Clean Up” and “The Great Unraveling-American History,” they’re the only thing clear about this abstract art, which takes into account Joseph Albers’ color theory and places emphasis on laying bare the art-making process (via exposed threads, ghost lines, and the like).

On the flip side, Duncan does quite a few things that are very concrete. Since 2002, he has been producing the ’zine Hot & Cold with Griffin McPartland. Each issue features contributions from 20 artists and is limited to 150 copies; the ninth installment will be released on May 9 at a group show at San Francisco’s Luggage Store Gallery. He’s also the editor of My First Time: A Collection of First Punk Show Stories, which was released by AK Press last August.

We caught up with Duncan at home in Oakland and engaged in a heady conversation about Daniel Higgs, string, and sacred geometry.

XLR8R: What artist’s work was a revelation to you when you first discovered it?

Chris Duncan: I feel completely inspired and awestruck by Robert Irwin and Daniel Higgs. They both embody the growth, fearlessness, and maturation that I strive to have. Robert Irwin was an action painter who completely walked away from his studio practice to pursue installation art, which focused on color, light, and space. That was the early ’70s. He threw caution to the wind and never looked back.

When I was 17 I walked into a record store in Maryland called Vinyl Ink and was immediately drawn to a stack of LPs by a band called Lungfish. The record was called Necklace of Heads and it had this really simple, beautiful black-and-white picture of a man on it. He looked like he was in a trance. He was reaching out. That record came home with me and blew my mind. I had never heard anything like it. The man on the cover was Daniel Higgs, the singer. That was 1991. Over the years I have seen his art shows; I’ve watched him read poetry, play music, play the Jew’s harp, and just be. It’s 2008 and his music and art have taken such strange and honest turns. He is a man who is connected to everything around him–he has honed in on all of it. I find his creations and way of living to be beautiful.

Then there’s the Dada movement. All of it. All of them. They shook it up, and have left shock waves that will last forever. That’s amazing.

What are some installation ideas that you’ve discarded along the way to arrive at where you’re at now?

As my work was changing from things that had figurative elements in them to abstraction, I had a lot of ideas in regards to combining the two things. I made sewn paper houses and thought it would be rad to make a whole city. Mostly, I was afraid to let go and needed a push. That came in the form of Brion Nuda Rosch and the Mimi Barr Gallery. Brion put me in a group show there and basically let me go nuts. I did, without any birds, all string, and pink tape. It felt right and I am still building off that installation: investigating string, light, shadow, optical trip-outs. It’s fun.

What is the most common media you work in?

I tend to work on paper or wood panel. Working on paper allows me to expand on some ideas by offering up the ability to sew. I use watercolor, markers, graphite… a lot different things. All my surfaces have a coat of wood putty on them. The wood putty has a fresco feel and can be sanded down to be perfectly smooth. It’s a great surface to work on.

Then there’s string. The string installations came from my boredom with my sewing machine. I really enjoyed the use of thread, but wanted to expand and interact with spaces, rather than paper. Conceptually it made the most sense as well. I was making relatively permanent work about transience and ephemerality. It started to make me feel weird. So I called bullshit on myself and started investigating actual temporary work that was about that moment. It’s there and then it’s gone. Like all of us. Like everything.

What is one thing you would like to make but can’t because of monetary limitations?

I have an interest in threes. I have an interest in simplification and reduction and contemplation. That being said, I enjoy the three most common shapes that can be found in almost everything: the square (or cube), the triangle (or tetrahedron), and the circle (or sphere). I would like to create a cube that you can walk into that has a smaller cube in it. The doorway to the cube would be the same size as the smaller cube. That room would be totally white. There would be a doorway in the shape of a circle leading to anther room. That room would have a neon-pink-taped floor and a large sphere (referencing the earth) hanging in the center of the room. The last doorway would be a triangle. That room would be pitch black with a white string pyramid in it. The base of the pyramid would have a mirror on it, and [would be] lit so that there would be triangles reflected throughout the room. The sphere and the cube would have dots all over them. Form, energy, matter; mind, spirit, body; the beginning, the middle, the end; birth, life, death. Process. Three. This would be giant and [would] cost a lot of money.

Can you talk about your use of color?

I generally work off of primary colors. I mix them into other weird colors when it becomes necessary. When I make the dot paintings, I feel that it is important to have as many colors as possible or, at the very least, to have a lot of colors touching a lot of other colors to create strange color relationships. The clustered dots are forms or bursts of energy. I don’t know that I choose a color palette as much as it chooses me. I am very influenced by Josef Albers and his color experiments. I just put out the vinyl version of the Pale Hoarse record on my new label called The Time Between the Beginning and the End. The concept for the covers is inspired by Albers. I made 104 of them. They are silk-screened and sewn and hand-numbered. The drawing is the same and the ink used is the same, but there are five different paper colors. The ink reacted differently to each paper; for example, the pink ink on yellow paper made the ink look orange, but the pink ink on blue paper made it look purple.

There is quite a lot of geometry in your work: triangles, shapes formed by strings and lines... What is your relationship to geometry?

I went to the Louvre when I was 23 and it blew my mind, in particular the Egyptian sarcophagi. Some of them had these really rudimentary color wheels on them that represented the cyclicality of life. I took to that and started making color wheels. (Funny how at school I hated those assignments.) Anyhow, the geometry built from there. It turned into fractals, points of contact and connection, studies of form, etcetera… so definitely more mystic, though I believe there is a connection between mysticism and mathematics, and I also believe humans have an innate geometric sensibility. I am horrible at math, by the way.

What is the best lesson you learned from punk rock?

Don’t talk shit. Though I cant say I’ve learned that completely.