Benjamin Duke’s paintings that make up “A River Without Banks,” hosted by the Paul Collins Art Gallery in Grand Rapids, MI, are as rich and layered an experience as the concepts behind the work. Whatever meaning you ascribe to the action–personal, civic, divine, or none at all–it is certain they will leave their mark. Each work is a complicated, feral environment—a portrait of a personal and universal mash-up of transcendence.
During the artist opening, Duke stood before a crowded gallery and carried forth his mellifluous, spirited talk. A rich stew of complex material was made a little more accessible, and certainly enjoyable, via rhetorical flourishes, brilliant connections to poetry, philosophical discourse, and art theory. Sometimes, when it slipped into the candid portal of his own methodology—home life, fatherhood, teaching—Duke set up the necessary scrims as a prism for us to look through. All the while, his painted figures budded behind him, teetering from his large canvases into something new and a bit wild.
These are not sedentary works. Each painting burgeons with energy. People, objects, and spaces lure us inside to explore ideas concerning our current state of multiplicity. Actions and shifting grounds overlap the way human experience intersects. Invisible strings that tie us to the world cross and weave. This culmination of relationships and experiences imprint themselves on the viewer. They overwhelmingly represent a society of the intimate and casual connections that inhibit and build our own world. For Duke, this is where the abstract, the expression, and the figural shift and unite to create a vortex. This brings us from a state of internal weaving to a new ground of cataclysmic budding. In each work, the illusory complex, centered by this action, suggests the eternal present.
In, “Crash” a highway leads to a city, palatable of multiple intersections and boundless altering grounds. The highway is weighted with traffic and the vigor of a city wrought with possibilities forebodes in the distant. Before that, literally exploding into a new ground, Duke’s vortex takes the the form of a just-crashed and air-bound convertible. Ecstatic and uncaring, bodies are caught suspended, ejecting as a signifier of constant change. This conceptual architecture is uncentered and frenetic as behaviors, actions, and reactions come together full-force in a new dynamic, contributing to the particular transformative gestalt. The fictive world designed from those physical things forms the vortex that grows and surges toward us and locks us in. These are inescapable experiences, however momentary, however perpetually happening. It is as if Duke were stating that in the lived-in world we are untethered, though the ensuing chaos allows for wonder and grace.
Although Duke’s work is intentionally rooted in a deep philosophical discourse, it is ultimately seeded in reciprocation. Here the work becomes a truth, which makes the abstract knowledge possible. Through a construct of recognizable objects and people it makes the death-defying action accurate, as in “Crash.” But he sometimes uses terrific humor, such as in “Enter the Dragon.” Here the vortex is imbued with a teetering stack of animal, insect, and human sinew. In the back field, behind the stack, a light, but looming architecture repeats that shape on a different ground. Duke accomplishes his humor underscored by a lack of certainty, such as in “The Combatibilists.” Here it is through the contrast of flat apparition-like shapes verses illusory space. I think Duke wants us to not experience his illusions directly, but mediated through other entities in some shared sensual space, the way his figures in “The Combatibilists” actively suggest while drinking tea. The action of disorder is a symptom of something greater, foreboding and ungraspable in its entirety.
In the lexicon of Duke’s work, lies the idiosyncratic, drawing attention to and describing of, the role of the notion of a lived-experience, lived-objects, and the present moment. There is an apparent bodily engagement and primacy in which Duke’s living connections intermingle in the world. They intertwine and resonate with a reciprocating action. Imagining multi-sensory worlds, Duke offers different levels of detail, space, light, shadow, and color with both control and abandon of the medium which creates the illusion of a multi-sensory world, embodying the corporeal and sensory dimensions all at once.
What keeps us tethered is Duke’s perception and skills at building his worlds. However, Duke adroitly pursues abstraction and distortion without jettisoning the sensuous surfaces of objects and space. “I’m Not Your Superman” illustrates objects, figures, and space with a sense of material expression—soft, hard, cold, gritty. In visually explaining the reality of objects with textures and wear, there entails the mark of body experience. These descriptions bring specific features of that lived-experience into greater perspicuity through the distortion. This is true especially in “The Cobatibilists” where multiple perspectives and ground shifts suggest the act of seeing, and therefore consciousness. Duke’s world’s are germinating and fill up like a tableau. There is a more fundamental realm of human experience through distortion—more attuned to the actual way in which we see the world. These elements keep us looking because they feel primal. They are true and we recognize without doubt direct qualities of the physical world.
It’s not just about the illusory worlds where Duke finds center. The magic is perhaps something beyond. A liminal and urgent paint language necessitates the viscous strata Duke incarnates into the work as a body memory. Even from five feet the viewer can experience the illusions being created, the invisible made viable. So fresh it seems; again, always at present. So apparent that we are able to imagine the artist in the act of imagining while simultaneously constructing the moment. He is caught up, intensely intertwined in the midst of making all tangible. Duke is working these surfaces but he is also breaking the surfaces. This is where I think Duke embodies the concept with which he is trying to communicate. We are watching an imagined and physical experience rather than just seeing a perceptual illusion.
Duke intertwines lives to remind us that the multisensory experience can be a terribly beautiful and disastrous experience. His constructs are reflective illusions where spaces are about the body’s existence in the world, the body’s activity in the world. It is important that these are worlds that have been lived in so that pondering them we don’t feel external to them. He organizes and gives structure to different grounds through which he is positioning us. When these grounds intersect a vortex blossoms. The amplification denotes specific, important changes that occur in the physical process of creation where, in the exaggeration, lies deep significance.
Yet Duke’s paintings tell us one more secret. Duke is at his sharpest when his poetic and allusive language of materials and perceptions appear to prefigure what will be seen. Detailing the tacit, pre-reflective relationship between experience and the built world, Duke seems to be painting experience, as he is receiving it. The descriptive evidence points to that of awareness. For Duke, painting is close to the palpable life of things and the world around him. We experience Duke looking and studying and ultimately reveling in the wonder and mystery of the now. We feel that. We feel his now.