Michael Duffy's retrospective reveals a fascination with mythologies and alternate realities.
Thursday, March 6, 2003
Photos: Michael Duffy, "Soul Gate", (left), and "In-Spiral -Rational."
In Robles del Rio artist Michael Duffy''s retrospective at the Pacific Grove Art Center, Only the Beginning, the hits and misses of 25 plus years are gathered together like so many characters in a George Lukas bar scene. Duffy''s art is generated by a reliance on intuition and meditative states: "Something''s going on in the universe and it will come to you if you just open up to it and have fun." And the result is a happy hour of drawing, painting, and sculpture featuring organic shapes, textures, and geometric forms.
In visiting a retrospective, the viewer yearns for a sense of the artist''s development, signs of initial investigations leading to later revelations. One wants to know the artist''s roots and the journey taken from the starting point to now-which other artists, past and present, have whispered inspirationally into this artist''s ear from time to time. Simple signposts, such as dates on the works doesn''t seem to be asking too much. But the viewer at Duffy''s career survey is left to sort it all out alone: the juxtaposition of the apparently new with the apparently old, the unstated concerns of the two-dimensional with those of the three-dimensional, mystery mediums categorized as "mixed."
Other curatorial lapses give one pause, such as the division, by 20 feet and one large unrelated sculpture, of two companion wall pieces, "Yin" and "Yang." The dialogue between works in a family can set off pleasing sparks of information, an aesthetic give and take that flirts with, but never becomes, narration. Here is a unique dynamic borne of title, conceptual association, visual similarities and differences that has been enervated by placement. Both "Yin" and "Yang" share color, texture, tooled metal shapes that suggest an interlocking, plus a sword blade-like element cutting through the composition. "Yang," with just one blade, and "Yin," with two, both at similar angles, are left mute without their partners. What a missed opportunity.
A clue to Duffy''s development is knowing that he turned from two-dimensional work to sculpture in 1987. That puts all floor and pedestal pieces in the most recent part of his career. By studying the drawings, watercolors and mixed mediums on the walls, and by acknowledging the artist''s preoccupations as revealed by titles, a fundamental orientation occurs. "Temple Gate," "Beginnings," "Out of the Ooze," Archangels Speak," "Dante''s Inferno," "Atlantis Found," and "Eternal River" are titles of two-dimensional pieces that, through a rough-surfaced abstraction and referential symbolism, evoke concerns for big ideas. Eventually, these ideas evolved off the wall onto the floor (in 1987) in the form of totemic sculptures that, like Egyptian figures and glyphs, insist on a static presence, the better to let the New Age mist around them settle on your eyes like a shaman''s spell.
"Initially, texture and color were my primary concerns. I was very process oriented," Duffy says. Indeed, a survey of the wall pieces reveals a restless experimentation with patterned textures, dense, overlaying shapes, photo-collage, and a preponderant earthiness. From these elements, Duffy has tried, sometimes successfully, to extract profundity, timelessness, a metaphysical domain. "I''d probably have been an archeologist if I wasn''t an artist," he says.
Duffy began his tapping into the collective unconsciousness in several graphite drawings, surely the most captivating of the two-dimensional works, by letting his pencil wander intuitively across the paper, developing hermetic passages and patterns, and a predilection for evocative linear clusters.
Happily, dates on a few of these works mark them as part of his embryonic journey of the 1970s. These drawings feel like authentic experiences-imagine Mark Tobey with a magnifying glass and 50 hours to explore an 8-by-10-inch mindscape. These early drawings show Duffy''s concerns for and faith in the intuitive process. He indulges in his belief that "a lot of stuff comes from an inner knowing, beyond the stuff I could know from my education."
The floor pieces, edifices that suggest stage props for sci-fi movies, represent Duffy''s unabashed desire to manifest three-dimensionally the big ideas of the wall pieces and his feeling for a mysterious universe full of hidden prophets, talismans, the metaphysical truths of numerology, and the resonating logic of mathematics. Repeatedly, his vertical totems allude to goddesses, gates, altars, sanctuaries or reliquaries of some undefined culture. "Pythagorus said, ''If you know the dodecahedron, you know the structure of the universe.'' I thought it would be nice to know the structure of the universe, so I started using dodecahedrons," says Duffy.
Taking on the challenge of evoking the profundity of the human experience is no small task. It requires the artist to freeze time in a seamless world wherein the viewer steps. It requires the viewer to surrender to the idea, to suspend disbelief that such things are not possible. Duffy''s amalgamation of references and cultural quotes generates certain otherworldliness, but one is frequently aware of the found objects first identities before being assembled together, as well as the rough construction of these faux icons.
The Michael Duffy retrospective continues at the Pacific Grove Art Center through April 11. 375-2208.