No one can accuse Zhivago Duncan of being single-minded.
The half-Danish, half-Syrian artist lives in Mexico City and speaks seven languages – English, French, Spanish, German, Italian, Arabic and Bulgarian. His father was in the hotel business and he grew up around the world, moving every few years to a new country.
His artwork likewise flits over subjects. He describes his sources for his latest exhibition at Meem Gallery in Dubai, Beauty Blocked My View, as (wait for it): the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Rubaiyat, cuneiform receipts for barley production, magnetic fields off Jupiter, Ishihara colour-blindness tests, and Thomas Edison’s consultation of the almanac before signing the United States constitution.
A deeper look into his work
Never mind that Edison didn’t sign the constitution. Duncan’s work treads lightly over distinctions of fact in its enthusiastic ecumenicalism. This body of work, for example, with its celestial metaphors, finds its medium in batik, an Indonesian technique he learnt while at art school in Malta. He relates it to – what else – his time spent rebuilding old Chevrolets. The hot wax in batik seals off parts of the canvas, just like the “fish eye” effect, where oil droplets prevent paintwork from adhering to cars.
It would all be maddening if the work wasn’t so beautiful, with its splashes of colour and expressive cut-aways of paint. Duncan begins with a sketch on his canvas, which he draws over with the hot wax. He then dyes the canvas with the lightest colour. “Then wax again and dye, and repeat over and over again,” he says. “The hot wax seals the canvas so that the dye doesn’t penetrate it.” The colours build upon each other, so that different parts of the canvas are exposed to colours at different times. “Using the wax is like painting negative space,” he says – and yes, I can see what he’s talking about.
The works have a hand-drawn, almost folkloric style, reminiscent of woodcuts, another medium with a tool that is hard to wield finely. Rising Meteor Shower (2018) has a cosmonaut-like, Russian Revolutionary look, with its star-pointed and red-tailed meteors all rising at an angle. Almanac (2018) gives off a slightly ombre effect, like a puddle of oil pockmarked by a spray of bubbles – and okay, now I see where he was going with the Chevrolets.
Sumerian Sunset (2018) – well, it does call to mind the coloured dots comprising Ishihara eye tests. If you can make out the number hidden in the image, it means you can properly differentiate the colours from one another. Here, the image creates the “S” from its title, Sumerian Sunset, while also evoking a thrashing blue ocean underneath an angry setting sun. The paintings are cosmogonies: they give off a sense of worlds moving, planets appearing and subsiding, and unknown objects moving across our visual field.
And Duncan, indeed, is interested not in the finer points of difference, but in the wider similarities among cultures, and in particular the way that genesis myths uncannily coincide.
Saudi artist Ahmed Mater: 'Art and culture now is about exchange, dialogue'
How Naseer Yasna is working to preserve an Afghan woodcarving tradition
A tropical-island, dream-land purgatory place: Monira Al Qadiri lands in Abu Dhabi
He expounds on the crossovers between ancient religions, starting with Syria, where his mother is from: “It’s a cornerstone of where we all come from. In this process, I started researching what was pre-Syria, and then I started getting into the region, reading all these epics: The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Enuma Elis, [Zecharia] Sitchin’s The 12th Planet. All these things delve into astronomy, science, gods and planetary rotation. They transcend cultures. The Enuma Elis says the same, The Bible says the same, the Greeks say the same, the Bhagavad Gita says the same – all using different names and styles, and more or less they’re the same. Different productions, same soap opera.”
Named after a Russian literary hero, Zhivago Duncan is, however, one of a kind: a wax-wielding man wrestling with beauty to be able to make sense of, well, everything.
Zhivago Duncan’s Beauty Blocked My View is at Meem Gallery, Dubai, until January 15