Zhivago Duncan: Measuring Consciousness September 15 to November 19, 2022 CULT Aimee Friberg 1401 16th St. San Francisco, CA 94103 United States
Measuring Consciousness is a solo exhibition of batik painting, ceramic and stone sculptures by Mexico City-based artist Zhivago Duncan. Incorporating scientiﬁc taxonomy with transcendental aesthetics, Duncan’s work combines old and new techniques to oﬀer a meditation on the evolution of consciousness. The artist’s ﬁrst solo exhibition with CULT and ﬁrst solo exhibition in the United States in over a decade, Measuring Consciousness will be on view from September 15 to November 19, 2022, with an opening reception on September 15 at 6 pm at CULT’s San Francisco space.
Born in Terre Haute, Indiana to a Syrian mother and a Danish father, Duncan’s ﬂuidity across materials and cultural signiﬁers reﬂects the relentlessness of an investigative mind. With freewheeling creativity spurred by his curiosity, Duncan’s lifelong impulse towards painting reﬂects his desire to contemplate, negotiate and comprehend the “big picture”: the origins of sentient life and the universality of consciousness.
The artist locates his obsession with creation myths to 2011, when his family’s plans to visit their homeland for the ﬁrst time were disrupted by the outbreak of the ongoing Syrian Civil War. Investigating the region from afar, Duncan became absorbed by historical accounts of life in the Fertile Crescent, as well as the mythologies that arose from its earliest civilizations – still relevant for their psychic potency today.
Measuring Consciousness ﬁnds the artist returning to a technique he ﬁrst learned as a 17-year-old – batik, or wax-resist dyeing. Like ceramics, batik is a decorative craft that evolved independently in civilizations around the globe. Laying down wax with a Tjanting (a pen-shaped tool used in batik to draw designs) directly onto his canvas allows Duncan to paint in a way that resembles drawing, before ﬁlling in ﬁelds of color in an intensive, layered process that deﬁes the technical impulses of oil or acrylic.
The dynamic results are both surreal and primordial; complex compositions play on forms reminiscent of petroglyphs. In his recent work, Duncan further heightens the dichotomy between ancient and modern by implying classiﬁcation systems for his motifs. In the language of scientiﬁc phenotypes, the artist catalogs facial expressions, tectonic shapes and totemic symbols. What we are left with are endless variations on a theme, as perpetual and mutable as the universe itself.
As an artist and theorist, Duncan is far more interested in what aligns us than what divides—drawing connections to fundamental similarities between the Big Bang and the Biblical story of Genesis, or the Iliad and the Bhagavad Gita. The artist is fascinated by parallel developments in isolated societies, and identiﬁes such synchronicities as indicative of the underpinnings of universal consciousness. As an artist, he treasures traditional techniques of coloring and ﬁguration as pathways to a Promethean impulse – the fashioning of humanity from the raw materials of the Earth.
Utilizing negative space to render portals and entrances across his Raku ceramics, Duncan builds up a world of inner and outer spaces, passageways and avenues; the sculptures seem to embody their own world-within-worlds. This style and position of embeddedness is also found in Duncan’s stone sculptures. Referring to them as “digital fossils,” they evoke a prehistoric version of the technologies we carry today in our pockets.
Formed of cast or encrusted metals featuring imagery resembling Duncan’s batik works, the aluminum and steel plates exist by themselves and inserted with stone blocks of marble and other material. Encompassing, footnoting and expanding these individual works in one section of the exhibition is an installation of chalk on blackboard-esque wall. Much like a fantastic, scrolling mathematics equation of lore, the chalk installation spells out the connections and profundities of Duncan’s worldview.
The artist is interested in looking across vast gulfs of time to encounter the familiar and remember the eternal–a kind of universal solidarity that evaporates divisiveness. Gently disavowing an individualist ego, Duncan reminds us that we are all shared nodes in a vast network of knowledge–stretching across continents and through centuries, and closely intertwined with the seismic information of the planet and the stars.
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