Ray Duncan

Ray Duncan 'High Windows and Bandaged Skies'
Engine Room Gallery - September 2003


The Space Studios, shared by Ray Duncan and a number of other practising artists, is located on the top floor of an old, disused mill in East Belfast. It's quite a climb to the top - the lift is defunct and the spiralling staircase both challenges the unfit and limits the scale of works that can be transported easily from studio to gallery - but the studio space and the view from the expansive windows is worth the effort. Seen through the large cracked and fractured windows, Belfast's industrial heritage is laid out like a moth eaten patchwork quilt. Punctuated by flashes of greenery, red brick alternates with grey slate and the silvered reflections from factory roofs as the terraces radiate towards the river, the ship-yards and the hills beyond.

From this high vantage point, the panorama is dramatic, as is well illustrated in Duncan's large scale canvases that extrapolate the aerial views of the cityscape into geometric patterns of colour and texture. However, for Duncan, the scenery is of secondary importance to the windows and the architecture of the building itself. The view is seen through the windows and the existence of the glass pane/picture plane that separates the 'real' world from the constructed, is reinforced by the structural jambs and transoms that are silhouetted by the light pouring into the studio. This illusory plane is exaggerated further by Duncan's exploitation of the vertical and horizontal tapes that physically bind together the windows, broken over years of neglect. In the series of smaller, more abstracted works, these tapes and broken gutters appear to float across the surface of the paintings, independent of the building, cutting into the blue, cloud filled skies. It's like looking at a Constable cloud study through a Pasmore abstract. The contrast between the traditionally observed clouds and the angularity of the geometric strips is disconcerting, even aggressive at times, whilst the tonal contrast effected by the contre-jour lighting can be dramatic at its best.

Light also defines and destroys the internal space of the mill and adds elements of drama and emotion to these carefully constructed paintings. In one work it runs in diagonal slants across the blue-grey tile sets of the warehouse floor, dominating the composition; in another, dark blue light floods the floor like a still, deep pool, whilst in a third, two simple red and blue polypropylene chairs are isolated - 'spot-lit' as if on stage.

In some works a single chair takes precedence, angled towards the view through the windows or set against a broken pane. The most striking 'Red Chair' is a study in reds and pinks in which the chair itself is sublimated to the role of a compositional pawn. The geometrical structure and the rich coloration are strongly reminiscent of the abstract window studies produced by Matisse in Collioure just before the first world war and Richard Diebenkorn's Ocean Park series of the 1970s.

In all of Duncan's chair paintings the seat is vacant, never accommodating a sitter. The mill, once full of the noise of machinery and the babble of conversation is now silent, devoid of people and the red chair, set alone in the corner of the shop floor, has become a melancholy metaphor for memories. These paintings evoke a plaintive sense of presence and place.

On one level, this sequence of works is concerned with the mechanics of painting - the detached observation of the artist's immediate surroundings and the progression from representation to abstraction. On another, it investigates the transience of light, time and memory. Some people believe that the fabric of a building absorbs the memories of its past and, for most viewers, the taping of windows is a direct reminder of more 'troubled' times. Duncan states that for him this taping "has become a metaphor for the bandaging of wounds" - a reference to the city's turbulent past. Whether or not this 'bandaging' is negative or positive is debatable as both memory and metaphor can be manipulated. The views through these hastily repaired panes become partially obliterated - the memory of past events selective, even censored. Conversely, the "bandaged skies" look upwards and outward, away from the city - perhaps part of a positive healing process that looks forward, not back.

Amanda Croft