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The centerpiece of Far Away, Duke Riley’s solo show at Charlie James Gallery, depicts a jumbled, teeming mass of humanity aboard a boat at sea. Pigeon fanciers wave flags to direct their flocks while figures in colonial-era garb commit acts of lust and violence on the ship and in the raging water below. A sailor performs oral sex on a mermaid with a tattoo reading ACAB (All Cops Are Bastards). Disembodied heads pierced by fish hooks bob in the waves—one wears a MAGA hat while the other sports a Klansman’s hood. The massive ink drawing is on canary paper (an off-white drawing paper favored by architects and designers), and Riley has glued the paper to a backing, giving it a wrinkled, antiqued look. The drawing, titled It’s Coming Through A Hole In The Air (2017)—lifted from the first line of Leonard Cohen’s 1992 song “Democracy”—has the palette, graphic style, and subject matter of 19th-century scrimshaw: carvings done on pieces of whalebone or tusk produced by sailors that often depicted whaling scenes. Still, the tattoo, hat, and other bits and bobs of contemporary material culture—an iPhone, a Dunkin’ Donuts coffee cup, a Louis Vuitton bag—place this drawing firmly in the here and now. Through his juxtaposition of this distinctly American folk art craft with modern-day references to politics and protest, Riley affirms that our current national tumult is consistent with, not separate from, that which has come before. The boisterous and visually exhausting scene paints a picture of American democracy that is messy, violent, and disorderly, challenging the false notion that there was ever a period of “greatness” to return to.
Riley mines a similar nautical past with Far Away (2019), a shell mosaic in an octagonal frame depicting a bottle floating on the water as if tossed by shipwrecked sailors. The collaged shells pull technique from what was known in the 18th and 19th centuries as the “sailor’s valentine.” The shell encrusted curiosities were not pieced together by the sailors, but by women in Barbados for the seamen to take as souvenirs to their loved ones after long journeys. Again, the idea of longing for home becomes a warped mythology, misremembered in the annals of Americana.
In Far Away, the first exhibition in Los Angeles for the New York-based artist, in addition to the ink drawings and works on paper—many of which resemble bits of tattoo flash (Riley also works as a tattoo artist)—Riley presents works that document past performances using homing or messenger pigeons. With an obvious affinity for antiquated or old-fashioned art forms (scrimshaw) and bygone cultural remnants (homing pigeons, whose lofts used to dot rooftops all over New York City), the earnestness and studied engagement Riley brings to his material keeps his work from verging into the contrived or affected. Instead, it stays grounded by his sincere engagement with the past, and the proposed bearing of that past on the present.
The Army of the Night (2017) is an embroidered and hand-painted catalog of the pigeons involved in Riley’s 2016 performance, Fly By Night, in which he outfitted thousands of pigeons with LED lights before sending them to take flight over the Brooklyn Navy Yard at dusk. Riley and other pigeon fanciers waved flags on the end of long sticks, guiding the pigeons in elegant, luminous aerial choreography. Though cheekily named and delicately rendered, absent additional context in the gallery, the pigeon portraits are evasive stand-ins for the drama of the actual performance. Similarly, two framed works that display 50 pigeon harnesses stand-in at Charlie James for a grand 2013 performance, Trading with the Enemy, for which Riley spent four years planning and eight months breeding and training pigeons to fly from Cuba to Florida. Half the birds were outfitted with harnesses to hold contraband Cuban cigars, while the other 25 carried cameras which documented the 90-mile trip from Havana to Key West. Eleven successfully made the voyage. Placed in mahogany frames and laid out in grids, the brightly-colored camera harnesses each have the name of a filmmaker who has had brushes with the law—Luis Buñuel, Ruggero Deodato, Dennis Hopper—stitched onto them, while the cigar harnesses bear the names of smugglers—drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, pirate Jean Lafitte, Civil War smuggler Minnie Burr. The project is a charming and witty commentary on our porous Southern border and the long history of traffic—of goods, people, and culture—both legal and illicit that has flowed over it. It is also an old-fashioned, semi-legal attempt to thwart the high-tech law enforcement systems that surveil the seas. Still, as with Fly By Night, video or photographic documentation of their voyage would have gone a long way in fleshing out the narrative that these objects begin to tell.
Other drawings hint at histories without revealing their depth. For instance, For God’s Sake, Stop Firing! (2018) is a small ink drawing that depicts a bird in profile, blood dripping from its footless leg. A tag on the other leg reads “Cher Ami.” An internet search of the work’s title reveals a story about World War I Major Charles W. Whittlesey and his “Lost Battalion,” a troop who had become isolated deep within German territory and cut off from other American regiments. When American forces began shelling their position, mistaking them for the enemy, Whittlesey sent a pigeon named Cher Ami with a message reading, in part: “FOR HEAVENS SAKE STOP IT.” Despite being shot in the breast and the foot, the bird delivered her message, saving the battalion. In light of the protests against police and state-sponsored violence over the past several years, Cher Ami’s message, especially as altered by Riley, captures a contemporary urgency.
From his sailors’ valentine to his references to scrimshaw and the lost art of pigeon fancying, Duke Riley has one foot firmly embedded in the obscure talismans of Americana. Rather than dwell in the past, however, Riley dredges up these historical antecedents to comment on the present, illustrating that the cultural and political miasma we find ourselves in may not be so unprecedented after all. Far Away touches on many threads, giving viewers ample aesthetic and historical directions to pursue, but absent additional context, it often fails to weave them into a coherent whole.
Matt Stromberg is a freelance arts writer based in Los Angeles. In addition to Carla, he has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, KCET Artbound, The Guardian, The Art Newspaper, Hyperallergic, Terremoto, Artsy, Frieze, and Daily Serving.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 22.