On the bio page of painter Justin Duffus‘ website is nothing more than the words “artist statement” next to a photo of a ratty car seat with foam popping out. The 1991 Honda Civic the seat belongs to has been in the family since Duffus was 10. Now it’s his. It’s really fucked up. The defroster doesn’t work. It gets stolen a bunch—twice recently. But thieves tend to ditch it nearby as soon as they realize all it can manage is a hobble.
The car has become a totem to Duffus. It serves as an artist statement because it’s a record of time and process and what’s valuable to him about relationships. The deterioration visible on the car—the layers of tattering vinyl upholstery and yellowing cushion—resembles the way he thinks about painting.
“Those layers visible underneath the surface is where the magic happens,” he says. “Because the defroster is broken, I’m always using a squeegee for visibility, especially in Seattle. It removes and drags across the surface, always offering a variation, a new visibility.”
Right now Duffus has a show of oil paintings called Sleeping Arrangements at Blindfold Gallery, and when you see them in person, you get what he’s talking about. Looking at his paintings is like peering through a smeared window. Melty brushstrokes carve out layer upon murky layer, offering outlines of mysterious nocturnal narratives. Bright colors pop out of pitch black. Smears of blue or white-hot emerald drag across the canvas. They could be fragments of aurora borealis, but they’re the aurora of headlights and swimming pools and fluorescent bulbs. One of his paintings actually is situated with the POV through a car’s windshield. A pair of barely-cocked wipers cuts across some action taking place in a garage. Inside are two figures, garishly illuminated. Their backs are both to us. The male figure is starting to disrobe.
“While I was working on Sleeping Arrangements, I was thinking about the body language of people who are figuring out where to end the night,” Duffus says. “When all of a sudden you’re in a completely new space with new bodies and all you have is a flashlight. Moments of rascality, play, vulnerability.”
For the show, Duffus painted the entire gallery black. The first painting inside the door—large, floating on this inkiness—is Taking Turns. A male and female clutch one another in the middle of the night. One is screaming over a pipe while the other holds on from behind. Across from it hangs Daylight Savings, a figure passed out on a haphazard pile of matresses. Awash in violet light and swaddled in gold and crimpson sleeping bags, the sleeper—probably on his way to a terrific hangover—looks beatific.
But it’s not just the follies, negotiations and small pleasures of the night that Duffus loves to paint (and paints so well). Some of his paintings show softer sides, scenes set in the relative warmth of domestic interiors. In Water, a smudge of ruddy, umber legs disappears amid a wash of green light in a bathroom. It’s wobbly, as though seen through stained glass or a water-spattered shower curtain. The Protector, painted on a sheet of semi-transluscent mylar (rather than the boards or canvas that fill the rest of the gallery), glows. A girl’s back is turned to us (of course), her arms, hands, face hidden. A bright blue sweater speckled with flecks of poppy red is the only thing she’s wearing. What is offered up are her pink buttocks and vignetted interior—perhaps a bathroom or a vanity—painted with such cunning economy of brushstroke that the unpainted space is as rich with intimations as what’s visible.
The next series of paintings for Duffus will follow this trajectory toward lightness, as he moves into the warmer months, prepping canvases for landscapes of fluorescents and pattern. He says he’ll be thinking of these new scenes as the morning after the paintings in Sleeping Arrangements.
Which isn’t to say these paintings are just about sex or wild bacchanalias leading up to the charming/awkward beddings of the night. They speak of something larger at play. In fact, they speak of play, in all its ludic, loud, unfettered generosity.
“In a world of so much competition for survival, I want to paint these moments of graciousness where we’re able to let others’ expressions of freedom exist,” Duffus says. “Whether or not we actually end up sleeping together is beside the point. The ones who stay awake have the most fun!”
Images couretsy of the artist.