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All in the making: works by Chris Duncan.

New Dimensions
By Rebecca Shepard

Recent Work: Sculpture and Drawing by Chris Duncan
Mandeville Gallery, Union College, through March 16

Hooray for abstract expressionism! Such unbridled passion and earnestness, such faith in the poetic gesture. That was my first, expansive feeling upon climbing the stairs to the Mandeville Gallery at Union College, where Chris Duncan is showing a comprehensive selection of recent sculpture and drawing. Not that his work is abstract expressionism, nor does it matter what you call it. But the passion and earnestness are there, as well as the belief in the creative process as an end in itself. From steel to ink to monoprint, Duncan uses diverse materials and processes, and is attuned to each in turn. He seems to have been too engaged in the physical act of artmaking to pay heed to the postmodern irony of much visual art of the recent past.

Duncan’s sculptures are made of steel, bolts, Rebar, threaded pipe, perhaps a random car part, all welded into dense configurations, with slender openings here and there to offer a crack of light. The largest works are partially filled with concrete, which, to me, gives them a congested, ponderous demeanor. But the smaller sculptures are truly delightful. (A number of these are already sold, and it’s no surprise.) They have a more open structure, a buoyant humor, and resolution; at the same time, they seem less explicit in their references to specific forms, allowing a poetic free association. Cross Country is a small, waxed-steel piece more wide than tall, balanced on a narrow base. A slender line of steel repeatedly flows outward and loops back on itself, folding more tightly at one end, as if gathering momentum. Perhaps the piece mimics the motion of leg and ski, but it is essentially the form that pleases, and the sensation of dynamic motion combined with an anchored grace.

Duncan’s drawings resemble each other closely in format, yet I did not get bored with them. Many are a sculptor’s drawings, about density, balance, gesture. They may be ruminations that anticipate the creation of a sculpture, yet they retain their own reason for being. There are references to abstract expressionist artists like DeKooning and Pollock, but also to Eastern calligraphy and brushwork. Most drawings are black ink and white paint applied with a fluid and spontaneous brush, almost always leaving a generous margin around a complex linear form. Duncan does a lot with basic tools and minimal changes—varying the weight of the brushmark, shifting the densest nest of lines to just off-center, modifying opacity by painting wet into wet. These subtle variations result in a surprisingly wide range of sensations: uplifting or confined, motion or stillness, tranquility or aggression.

The sculpture and drawing on view here are separate but equal in an uncanny way, like fraternal twins. Line is the connecting factor, the twinning DNA. Whether in steel or ink, Duncan uses line in singular form as a calligraphic gesture or, more often, in layered, overlapping tangles, where it becomes a structural tool to build a shape. It’s interesting to see an artist working in two different dimensions so successfully—rather like watching someone who is truly ambidextrous.

The problems of the show have to do with editing and presentation rather than quality of work. I might like Duncan’s large sculptures a lot more in an outdoor setting; they are a bit like the bull in the china shop in the Nott Memorial’s ornately patterned, gothic-revival interior. The large drawings are also problematic; they are installed so that you either have to stand too close or too far away, and are framed under Plexiglas, which creates wavy—and very distracting—reflections. These problems are due partially to the unique nature of the space, but it would have been better to exclude some works and suffer the trouble to frame the rest under glass. This may seem nitpicking, but Duncan’s work is the kind that is at its best with a pristine presentation, allowing the slightest variation of line and texture its maximum resonance.

Now that I’ve said there should have been more editing, I’ll contradict myself. It’s so good to see a whole lot of an artist’s work. It’s very generous. It allows you to vicariously wander through the vicissitudes of the artist’s creative process, see this in its fullness, and better understand its singular vitality. And the good work here is not diminished by the minor flaws of the show. Duncan’s physical connection to materials, his grafting of Eastern and Western cultures, his humor and sensitivity contrasted with an almost clumsy masculine physicality—all combine to create a unified body of work that is distinctly his own, and a pleasure to spend time with.

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