New York

Tom Duncan

G. W. Einstein

That Tom Duncan’s wall-mounted assemblages and larger, freestanding polychrome dioramas of found objects and materials resemble altar panels and reliquaries is appropriate, considering their function—to teach and preserve important events in the artist’s life by means of both symbol and narrative. At first glance,these busy scenes, populated by tiny figures, animals, buildings, and landscapes, recall the folk-art subgenre known as “memory painting,” yet a closer look reveals that, instead of gentle reminiscence, Duncan’s project is nothing less than an intense reimagining of his life, in which traumatic events are reexperienced and mastered via a kind of fantastic, additive alchemy. Dedicated to exorcising the artist’s peril-filled childhood in Scotland during World War II, and addressing his subsequent escapades in postwar America, these works are unapologetically narcissistic, and therein lies their charm.

The Brandy Straffing, 1991, vividly recreates an attack on the young Duncan and his mother by German pilots. Replete with guardian angels hovering over the victims and devils flying over the Nazi planes, this scene is surrounded by a layer of earth, gas masks, and other cryptic symbols that evoke the protective environment of a bomb shelter. The artist’s guardian angel (presented as an adolescent self-portrait with wings) is an omnipotent alter ego, shamanistically reinserted into this memory and others to render them harmless.

The work in progress Dedicated to Coney Island, 1984–, is a massive, minutely detailed replica of the famous amusement park, with its boardwalk and beach represented as it appeared during its heyday. By pushing buttons, one is able to set various rides in motion. This and other non-war-related works are also dedicated to mastering once-perceived threats to the artist; his ever-present guardian angel hovers diligently over what must have been a terrifying scene to a child. The Mercurochrome Kid III and IV (both 1988) belong to a series of painted altar panels that chronicle one of Duncan’s childhood injuries and his subsequent, Christ-like immersion in a protective bath of blood-red Mercurochrome. Little irony is evident in this conflation of personal and religious history.

Duncan’s many years of art training prevent his miscategorization as “naive.” His is a sophisticated synthesis of sources that include religion, history, fairy tales, comics, and art of the self-taught. Though the latter influence is especially evident, Duncan’s sculptures lack the stilted, contrived look that often marks the work of trained artists who draw from such sources. Duncan’s obsessive dedication to his personal vision suggests that he has one foot firmly planted on the “outside.”

Jenifer P. Borum