24.5" × 48.5" acrylic on canvas
32" × 72.5" acrylic on canvas
An essay by Dorothy Barenscott
Sitting down to interview Nancy Duff, I am both excited and nervous. After more than two years of a global pandemic that has left us all isolated, exhausted, and transformed, I’ve almost forgotten the simple pleasure of experiencing paintings in real life and conversing one-on-one, human being to human being, with an artist. I am immediately struck by the warmth, quiet, and stillness of Duff’s studio, how the scale of the displayed paintings, mounted from floor to ceiling awash in the summer sunlight streaming through large skylight windows illuminating the lofted space, speak with their hopefulness, bold dimensionality, colour, and dare I say, beauty. “This might be the most open-ended audience receiver-driven work I have ever made” Duff explains thoughtfully, “much more open to the active reader.” And as we survey the studio and take it all in together, I nod in agreement, knowing that what I am experiencing in this moment lies beyond language or easy understanding.
Intersecting themes of space, topography, and identity cut across Duff’s art practice—an approach that finds a special relevance within today’s visual and social-media landscape, which renders art more as part of an industry or economy rather than a catalyst for meaningful social engagement or critical reflection. As Nato Thompson argues, helping us understand the significance of Duff’s thematic interests, “An emphasis on space provides a way to think about power concretely. . . [and] allows concerns to be resolved and/or confronted in the lived world—both theoretically and pragmatically.” 1
Now maybe more than ever, the human desire to experience and apprehend real, lived spaces—material, contingent, and messy—and the social interactions that come with them arrives on the heels of converging global events and emergencies that force a collective reckoning of how we perceive the world simultaneously shifting inside and outside of us. “I think of these as landscapes” says Duff of her After the Flood painting series, “not always anchored in an easy-to-understand perspectival viewing point.” In turn, Duff emphasizes how the flux of what you bring to the work as a viewer activates how you understand the work as much as the artist has an idea of what they are communicating. “I think there is a bit of a handshake there” offers Duff, “everyone has a location. . . and experiences determine the way you interpret space.”
Duff’s paintings are large, immersive, and inviting. They evoke something of Abstract Expressionist painting popularized by American artists in the immediate aftermath of WWII. The power of those canvases, explains Duff, lay in their open-ended nature: “They could be anything.” Here, Duff cites Eva Cockcroft’s famous 1973 essay “Abstract Expressionism: Weapon of the Cold War,” examining how the movement became co-opted as a symbol of political freedom exported around the world. At the same time, in the quiet contemplation of these kinds of paintings, compositions closer to the fluidbiomorphic shapes, lyrical gestures, and transparency of modernists Helen Frankenthaler and Agnes Martin, and postmodernist Gerhard Richter (artists from whom Duff draws inspiration), there arises the question posed by Duff: “In terms of time and space, what can we understand about an image that we have never really experienced before?” Such a representational enigma is exemplified by two paintings—Two Horizons and Anvil—works that help ground the conceptual underpinnings of After the Flood.
“This is where it started” says Duff of Two Horizons, describing the more abstract and utopic composition of the two. A massive painting rendered in striking and contrasting tones of red, yellow, and purple incorporating hard edges and straight lines held in tension with softening contours and areas of empty canvas, began as a “one-off” to place in her parent’s home as a gift. It was a painting that came together very quickly, and as Duff admits, “I didn’t really know what I was doing.” Yet, when completed, and as the title suggests, there emerges competing entry points into the work. This sets up the riddle of where to locate oneself in the picture. “Where is the horizon, where is the land, where is the water?” asks Duff. These are usually what anchor the viewer’s perspective, and in Duff’s impromptu experimentation, she opened a whole host of new questions to explore: “What happens when the horizon changes, when it goes from a worm’s eye view to a bird’s eye view? Where can your eye rest? Where can you feel not too agitated?”
The question of being orientated in space, something the viewer often depends upon the artist to provide in a picture, is also brought into focus and then troubled in Anvil, the more figurative and dystopic of Duff’s paintings. The object at the center of the composition—a massive, hollow Corten steel form—is an actual thing that was temporarily located in False Creek’s Leg-in-Boot Square as part of the Vancouver Biennale.2 Set against the backdrop of the beautiful waterfront and glass condominiums surrounding it, the object appeared to Duff like “plop art”—a slang term for questionable public art commissioned by government institutions or corporations—and she saw humour in a piece that evoked cartoon visions of the Roadrunner pushing the ACME anvil onto Wile E. Coyote. Later, after Duff photographed and contemplated the object and began to work with it as the subject of a painting, she shifted both the horizon and perspective of the anvil as she worked from a more figurative and literal representation of the original object in space to one that evokes more dystopic, sensational, and disorienting spaces through layers of abstract shapes, shifting light, and intense cool, aquatic hues. Together, Two Horizons and Anvil invite and confront audiences with their changing horizons and geographic perspective.
Notions of shifting viewpoints and mutable identity—revealing the potential of more than one way to look—punctuate Duff’s long and successful career as an artist and educator. Born and raised in Calgary, Duff began her artist training as a young person under the mentorship of the legendary Albertan sculptor Katie Ohe. From Ohe, Duff absorbed and adapted ideas around abstraction, conceptualism, and kinesis into her art practice, and the importance of materials, surface, and scale. Closer to home, Duff was introduced to photography and the representational potential of the camera through her father, Lawrie Duff, a commercial photographer and photoengraver. Stories of his experiences as an RCAF WWII aerial photographer would later serve as inspiration for the project Aperture Aporia Afterimage, a video installation created with Linda Corrigan and exhibited in 2014 that incorporated displays of Lawrie Duff’s cameras and wartime photography.
Like many professional artists, Duff’s early art training was variously interrupted and augmented through educational pursuits deemed to be “more practical” by family and broader society. A true polymath, Duff earned degrees in both Biology and Education at Dalhousie University and pursued graduate studies in Architecture at the University of Calgary before enrolling at Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design in 1990 to pursue a BFA. As an adult student returning to university with years of academic and work experience, Duff took full advantage of the freedom and opportunity to revisit and engage her passions and talents through an invigorating period of inter- and cross-disciplinary experimentation in art production.
Duff’s art training from the early to mid 1990s coincides with what is sometimes referred to as “the art historical turn” in the art world, where the introduction of critical and feminist theory into art school curricula resulted in a complete reappraisal of how histories of art were constructed and institutionalized moving forward.3 As Duff recounts this moment, she signals a key “turning point” in her art practice. Duff, along with other forward-thinking contemporary artists began to topple the grand narratives and unquestioned truths about what constituted art through personal, self-reflexive projects focused on identity politics. “Since art history is lodged in the modernist world of painting,” explains Duff, “my work had to be in direct conversation with that. . . the theories were all new to us and open for exploration.” Taking inspiration from artists and theorists such as Sara Diamond, Griselda Pollock, and Donna Haraway, Duff was free to openly question the history of painting and, by extension, the effects of hegemonic representation. As a result, in subversive projects ranging from The Artist’s Studio (after Courbet), Alternative Conceptions (after Leonardo) to Elles (after Manet) Duff queers, feminizes, and transforms canonical works of art.
It is difficult to underscore how significant this historical moment was both in the art world and academia. Today there is a mainstreaming of these radical ideas tied to identity, power, and gender, but the legacy of critical theory profoundly shaped Duff’s art practice and teaching. Indeed, as Duff moved from British Columbia to California to purse her MFA at the University of California, Irvine, with mentors such as Catherine Lord, queer theory specialist, artist, and author of Art & Queer Culture, she joined a large supportive community of activist artists. As Duff reminisces, “I had permission to do what I wanted. . . it was the best time of my life.”
Duff’s Canadian identity would also emerge as critical content in her art practice. Her body of work “Borderdom,” a word she invented to “represent the constant awareness of living next to the world’s superpower,” recalls novelist Margaret Atwood’s famous line about “the world’s longest undefended one-way mirror” that leads Canadians to “observe, analyze, ponder, snoop and wonder what all the activity on the other side means in decipherable human terms. . .”4 Borderdom pulls apart Canada, the US, and Mexico at the borders, as seen from a small plane, and overlays the countries onto the national colours of grade school maps, problematizing the issues of border security and the movements of ideas, people, and goods. The impossibility of containing terrorism, illegal immigration, and the spread of viruses makes literal the anxieties of these abstract border constructions.
In projects foregrounding experimentation in video, performance, and photography, Duff explores themes of surveillance, porousness, and contingency in the construction of identity. For example, in The Lay of Your Land, Duff recreates the embodied perspective of an outsider, described as “holding up a mirror to southern California, and its version of the American Dream.” Included in this project of large-scale aerial landscapes, images of Canadian pennies are juxtaposed, suggesting “the bad penny” to be a personification of the artist. The performative element uniting both projects is “an ‘invisible’ lesbian Canadian” who infiltrates the landscape, reinforcing symbolic and metaphoric associations together with Duff’s subject position as the artist creator of the work.
In recalling Duff’s dynamic art school training, influences, and projects, I ask about her strong return to painting in recent years. In the 1990s, as Duff concedes, everything was changing in painting, “it was seen as passe,” and the grand repositioning of contemporary art practice was (and still is to a large extent today) oriented towards dematerialization, new media technology, and performance. For Duff, however, painting continues to present challenges and opportunities that keep audiences engaged. She also points to the practicality and accessibility of the medium. “I’m interested in exploring perception. . . and it’s easy to go to the studio and know what my materials are going to be.” When I press and ask what is at stake with painting, her response is both revealing and honest: “I guess I am stubborn. . . it is a very active process, and you can’t figure it out beforehand. . . at least for a painter, you are making decisions based on what you just did. Was this right, was that wrong? Should I let it stay, should I get rid of it, should I keep going. . . when will I know that it is complete?”
At the same time, landscape, topography, and space, as through lines in Duff’s art practice are informed by a strong feminist geographical perspective that cannot help but be influenced by Canadian painting traditions and discourses surrounding the Group of Seven and Emily Carr. In Canada, looking at a painted landscape representing “the big land” is fraught with colonial history, asking who’s in the picture, and who’s not in the picture. Moreover, in Vancouver where discussions surrounding real estate, land scarcity, unaffordability, the climate crisis, and disputes over Indigenous lands are ever-present, tensions such as those presented in After the Flood persist around lived space.
Duff’s love of painting also draws strength from her critical approach to teaching and the time spent working with art students across all levels and abilities for over twenty years. “I think doing anything creative requires confidence” explains Duff. When I ask her about the special challenges of teaching painting and how she worked with students to appreciate what it takes to be a “good” painter today, she talks about telling students to understand that what they are doing is “representational” and that “you have to be in there, it has to mean something to you, and you have to situate yourself in your practice.” Now retired from teaching, Duff shares with me that she still receives letters years after working with individual artists, many thanking her for introducing concepts and theories that were only fully digested and appreciated years after leaving her studio classroom.
Indeed, there are powerful opportunities for artists in our tenuous post-pandemic moment to engage with audiences about subjects, spaces, and societal changes that remain underexplored beyond the superficial gloss of visual, screen, and social-media culture. “Experiencing this shifting geography, even in our lifetimes” Duff explains, “I think that is very unanchoring.” In this way, painting ironically “returns” in our contemporary moment as one of the most subversive media through which an artist can engage, especially in a place like Vancouver. This may well be the legacy Duff provides as both an artist and a teacher. As our interview draws to a close, I ask Duff what she would hope people would walk away feeling, thinking, or remembering after visiting After the Flood. “I would like for them to have been interested in looking at the images,” Duff replies “and I am hoping they are not easy images. It’s very hard to get someone’s attention today. . . and so if I could engage a viewer to find the images slightly difficult but also compelling, that would be in my view a success.”
1. Nato Thompson, Seeing Power: Art and Activism in the 21st Century (Brooklyn, NY: Melville House Publishing, 2015), 158.
2. Acoustic Anvil: A Small Weight to Forge the Sea by artist Maskull Lasserre was exhibited from 2018–2021 in the Vancouver Biennale: https:// www.vancouverbiennale.com/ artworks/acoustic-anvil-a-smallweight- to-forge-the-sea/
3. See Donald Preziosi, “Art History: Making the Visible Legible” in The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 7–12.
4. Margaret Atwood, “Through the One-Way Mirror.” The Nation (New York, N.Y.) 242, no. 11 (1986): 332.
On the Beach
37" × 58" acrylic on canvas
48" × 59" acrylic on canvas
70" × 66" acrylic on canvas — SOLD
22.5" × 24" acrylic on canvas
32" × 72.5" acrylic on canvas
28.5" × 28.5" acrylic on canvas — SOLD
AFTER THE FLOOD
Always hopeful, we imagine ourselves to have come through something, because we remember before, and we wish it to be over. But actually, we are in it, in the during of it, the enduring flood times, incremental, yet epic; of biblical proportions, and within and beyond a human lifespan. We knew it, but we didn’t want to. We had time to make changes, but science had to debate the ignorance of populism; uninformed opinions were deemed equal to scientific facts. Fake news, deep fakes, and reality became indistinguishable until Home Depot ran out of sump pumps, and we learned how to make sandbags while whistling the tune from Monty Python’s Life of Brian: “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.”