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Re-contextualising maritime motifs with Duke Riley

The visual artist employs his fascination for seafaring culture and its accompanying aesthetics to talk about contemporary issues.

by Jones JohnPublished on : Jan 22, 2021

Images of pigeons, nautical themes, satirical chimeras and other amusements inhabit the Quint Gallery in Los Angeles, housed behind a traditional Chinese storefront. Featuring the works of Duke Riley, an artist based in New York, who for a long time has been obsessed with the littoral traditions and thalassological technologies and networks, the gallery inadvertently creates an added layer to compound and complement Riley’s concerns with its own multiculturality as it hosts Far Away. Always within the proximity of the ocean, having grown up around Massachusetts, a fascination and awareness for the connections created by the water had always motivated the artist.

“Years later, when I was a tattoo artist, I started to draw a lot of parallels with some of the early maritime folk art that I had grown up seeing and how that had also influenced tattoo culture. And I think that I was also very interested in just the roots of maritime folk art and craftsmanship and how that sort of grew out of a global mesh of aesthetics and culture on a very working-class level,” he says. Entwined with this interest was an awareness of the visual aesthetics that characterised the city of Massachusetts, which developed by virtue of its coastal location, and employing the emerging motifs to create a political commentary on what he calls ‘transgression zones’, which is a space marked with a particular kind of instability due to its being a meeting place of water and land. “We are in a point where the environmental shifts are increasing more because of climate change and so on and so forth, and at the same time it is a point of hyper-development and enhanced security and control, confronting those same transgression zones on the other side. I think it is a sort of a critical point where we are seeing great shifts towards an untold future," mentions Riley.

I’ve Been Using The Same Razor Since 1942 (2016) | Far Away| Duke Riley| STIRworld
I’ve Been Using The Same Razor Since 1942 (2016) Image: Courtesy of the artist and Charlie James Gallery

An exhibition for Riley is a miniature museum dedicated to particular interventions that had been previously performed and, in this regard, Far Away stands out in that it includes work from a few different projects, which are historically and environmentally conscious of the marine ecosystem. While in some instances, such as in Fly by Night, where he trained two thousand pigeons to fly in the night with LED lights, the impetus is placed on an aesthetic accomplishment in others, such as the work the exhibition is named for where he speaks for the problem of plastics inhabiting the oceans, he attempts to engage in relevant dialogue through his practice. For Riley, these different art practices are not essentially disparate, as he says, “You look at all these different things and you realise that there are these underlying connection within the stuff that I have done in that they are an examination of boundaries”.

From left to right: It’s Coming Through A Hole In The Air (2017) and Far Away (2019) | Far Away| Duke Riley| STIRworld
From left to right: It’s Coming Through A Hole In The Air (2017) and Far Away (2019) Image: Courtesy of the artist and Charlie James Gallery

In The Army of the Night, Riley catalogued his two thousand pet pigeons, with a spirit of keeping each bird’s individuality intact in their visual representations. Having always been keenly enthusiastic about pigeon rearing, their prominence in his practice is only nature. But rather than simply being a motif for which he has a certain affinity, Riley tries to bring attention to the importance of pigeons in man-made systems: “As much as I have obsessed about this space where the urban environment meets the waterfront, I also feel like there is another boundary where nature intersects with this kind of man-made urban world and I feel like pigeons are ambassadors of that boundary, where they kind of exist in both. I think there is a similar relationship with the sky, just like the city and the waterfront". The choice of material here becomes symbolic as well, with stylistic similarities with military embroidery traditions these portraits also become a tribute to the involvement and service of pigeons in human wars.

The Army of the Night (2017) | Far Away| Duke Riley| STIRworld
The Army of the Night (2017) Image: Courtesy of the artist and Charlie James Gallery

While the formal aspects of his practice depend greatly on the history of maritime cultures and the sub-cultures that they have influenced, in a way it also looks ahead. Riley works with media, from mosaic to fabric to ink, that have a sense of permanence and definitude in each action, providing a sense of certainty against the unforeseeable future in a rapidly changing world. While his motivations have a contemporaneous relevance, according to Riley this yearning for permanence has always been an underlying feature of littoral communities, as can be witnessed in the durability of artforms emerging from such spaces, and in this, the antiquity of his preferred artforms also appear symbolic of his own peculiar diachronicity.

Duke Riley| Far Away| Duke Riley| STIRworld
Duke Riley Image: John Kippan, Courtesy of the artist and Charlie James Gallery

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