Artist Chris Duncan came to Northern California for the Tahoe powder — and to get away from his routine in Delaware and his native New Jersey of catching hardcore shows every weekend and doing absolutely nothing else with his life. Duncan recalls he and a friend "snowboarded for a season, and it was rad and it was horrible at the same time. Every night it was the same party with the same 40 guys and three girls, so I started to stay in and draw."
Since then, that need to draw a line between the fun but perhaps meaningless life of nightly parties and his own creative urges has led Duncan to San Francisco, where he moved in 1996 and spent the next years working, skateboarding, and attending California College of the Arts, where he began to find direction, to chart his own personal map to the color theory of Mark Rothko and Josef Albers, and to dip into sacred geometry, string theory, Eastern philosophies, and increasingly, simple nonfigurative forms. In his current work temporal strings converge, intersect, and radiate above needle-nose pyramids, shooting off across ceilings and traversing rooms. Flat works are stitched with ragged stars or painted with dark rays that explode above kaleidoscopic ziggurats.
"For me, it's about dealing with being fully overwhelmed by humans, to be perfectly honest," confesses Duncan, 32, kicking back in his tidy wood box of an Oakland studio, off the downtown-area railroad tracks. Dressed head to toe in black, tattoos crawling up his neck and down his arms to hands that jerk to punctuate a point, the artist is far from slick, but he exudes an amiable earnestness raving about his young daughter, Aya-mea Mourning. "I'm also completely amazed by people. People are fantastic and can do such great things. Look how far we've come — and the mirror image of that is look at what we've done."
What has Duncan done? Perhaps he's captured the zeitgeist, one that's both physical and ethereal, give or take a planet. His SF gallerist Gregory Lind says, "Chris Duncan's laboriously rendered works on paper and his intricate string sculptures seek to combine the spiritual with the scientific, which is compelling to me in this kind of dark period we find ourselves in today."
Whether the artist's pieces trace strings of energy or ecstatic explosions in some acid-laced map room, he's found a way to tap some sort of fuel source for his numerous projects, including his striking grab bag of an art zine, Hot and Cold, in which he and Griffin McPartland showcase artists like Matt O'Brien, Chris Pew, and Jen Smith. They took a page from their own periodical to produce a catalog for Yerba Buena Center for the Arts' 2005 exhibit "The Zine UnBound: Kults, Werewolves and Sarcastic Hippies." Duncan has also curated exhibits as part of Keepsake Society, a site he maintains with ex-girlfriend Aki Raymer, and he is editing an anthology of “my first punk show” stories for AK Press.
"When I got older and found art making, I found a spot to do the things I saw happening as a teenager, with what all my friends were doing," he says. "I began making zines and started curating, and in terms of how active and how DIY everything was in that [East Coast hardcore] scene, I found a place to put that to use when I got a little older. And this is the perfect city for that — there are so many examples of people doing it. It's a nice blanket to be under."
And speaking of blankets: Duncan will be stitching together a cosmic ray–embellished quilt of sorts in memory of his recently deceased 99-year-old great-grandmother for his forthcoming show at Jeff Bailey Gallery in New York City. Much like a handmade, toy- and goodie-bundled, affordable and accessible limited-edition art zine, the project embodies an aesthetic Duncan embraces. "We just totally outdo the last thing we did and totally overwhelm people. Things don't exist like that anymore," explains the artist. "Everything's so not made by hand and so not giving in a way. I think with a little energy you can give a lot, and I think that's really important." (Kimberly Chun)