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Alumni Studio Visit: Chris Duncan
May 4, 2021 · Alumni
NYSS: Describe a typical day in studio.
Chris Duncan: It varies. I work in two different studios, one at Union College, where I teach, and the other at our house in Maine. The Maine studio is seasonal for now. At UC, I try to start by 10am or 11am each morning that I am not teaching, and work through until 7pm or 8pm. The sculpture studios there were recently expanded and modernized, and allow for a great variation of technical approaches and experimentation. I have several sculptures going at any one time, made in a variety of media, so I move from working with paper and resin in one area, into the plaster studio, or the wood shop, steel shop, etc. In the Maine studio, I do everything in the same space. I usually switch back and forth between pieces, sometimes because of the material processes that are involved, sometimes just to keep the ball rolling.
NYSS: Walk me through your process. What are some of the parameters or problems you set up for yourself within your work?
CD: Drawing is an important part of my studio process. I do not make preparatory drawings for a specific sculpture, but I do a lot of work on paper that helps me understand the direction I want the sculpture to take. Sometimes the drawings are quite large – 48×70” – but I often work on 12×12” Arches watercolor paper. I usually do a series of drawings to locate an idea or a feeling. At a certain point, I will sense that I have reached my limit in two dimensions and I will start making objects.
My work is abstract. Working in the studio is the process of finding the sculpture. I have a rough idea of the size, format and so on, but most of a sculpture happens as I make it, and the pieces go through a lot of changes before I get to the final form. Much of my recent work is built of Arches watercolor paper and cardboard, with a clear resin applied afterward. Color is an important part of the work, and I paint the paper first before cutting and assembling it. Some of the problems I set are formal – I want the sculpture to have a relationship to gravity and balance; to be coherent in the round; to have a specific identity even though it is comprised of many different parts. Other issues are more metaphysical – I think some of the meaning of the sculpture derives from the way it differs from other, more familiar objects. Recently I have been wondering if either the relentless optimism of Modernism (the tradition I most directly come out of) or the irony and identity politics of post-Modernism can adequately address the essentially tragic nature of human experience. But that is a fairly recent thought and I am not sure where I am going with it.
NYSS: How has your practiced changed during this time of social distance? Have you had to adapt to a new way of working?
CD: I have probably made more new work this year than I have in a long time, in part because the students were not on campus for much of the time, and I have been very lucky to be able to show it, but it has still been sort of a one-hand clapping experience. Public access to the shows has been restricted. The most important thing that has changed in my practice is the very limited contact I have had with other artists. I usually work alone in the studio anyway, but the lack of openings, studio visits, residencies, travel and general socializing has created a very noticeable void. Seeing shows has also been challenging, and Instagram can only take you so far. I was absolutely thrilled to go to the Frick Madison a few weeks ago, and to see some great new work in Chelsea. Things are opening up, so that is good news.
NYSS: What do you keep in the studio for inspiration? Reference material, artist monographs, music, fiction, found objects, foods etc…
CD: I keep some sort of talismanic odds and ends around, many of them mementos of travel and art sites, and at the college I have an office full of art books and assorted visual things. But sculpture studios are by definition full of objects, so for me it is usually a question of trying to get rid of stuff that is cluttering my sense of the work. The key non-art thing for me is the coffee maker.
NYSS: Do you listen to anything while you work?
CD: I listen to music of every kind while I work. Because I teach, I hear what the students are listening to, which keeps me a little more tuned in. Spotify has become an essential ingredient of the studio day for me. NPR can bum me out but sometimes I go with WBGO, Newark. They play a lot of old school jazz and blues. If that gets too sappy, maybe some Black Keys or Fela to wake me up. When I’m drawing, it is jazz, Beethoven quartets, or Steve Reich.
NYSS: How did studying at the New York Studio School influence your current studio practice?
CD: The Studio School continues to influence my practice in every way. Coming from a liberal arts background, directly after a post-college summer at the Skowhegan School, I loved being immersed in an environment that was all about art. Everyone took painting and sculpture as serious endeavors. That is what we were there for, and people were working in the studios at all hours. Lee Tribe, an influential fellow student then, literally lived in the studio. My teachers – Clement Meadmore and William Tucker in particular – helped me find ways to conceive and articulate what it was about sculpture that was important to me. The visiting artist line up was incredible – everyone from Merce Cunningham to Louise Bourgeois to Brice Marden and so many more lectured or critiqued. And the School’s emphasis on art as a continuum, and studio practice as an ongoing search, are ideas I still embrace.
NYSS: Are there any upcoming shows or projects on the horizon you would like to share? And where can people see your work digitally?
CD: I have four large outdoor sculptures in the upcoming exhibit “Force” at the Southern Vermont Art Center in Manchester, VT, curated by Anthony and Pearl Cafritz from Salem Art Works and opening in May and I will be in a four-person exhibit entitled “Parallel Play” at the Schick Gallery at Skidmore College this fall. The other artists are DeWitt Godfrey, Coral Lambert and Mary Neubauer. And an exhibition at Union College, which can be viewed virtually.
Starting in March 2020, I co-curated, with German sculptor Anne Carnein, three Instagram-based shows and five live-streamed conversations with artists @thecanceledexhibitionproject . I organized a faculty exhibition this spring that was tremendously invigorating, with an interactive tour.
And I have curated an exhibition, postponed from last year, of work by four sculptors for the Crowell and West Galleries at Union College, opening in September 2021.