Duke Riley’s burlesque spin on the regalia of museum exhibits and folk art—hyperallergic | Candle Made Easy

“Remember to hit the like button and subscribe,” says Duke Riley at the end of Welcome Back to Wasteland Fishing (2019), “It really helps.” Projected in the entry room of his Brooklyn Museum exhibit DEATH TO THE LIVING, Long Live Trash, the short video — a spoof of a YouTube fishing tutorial — shows Riley aboard a boat using bait he made from discarded plastic tampon applicators. Examples of lures hang nearby in Duke the Fisherman’s High Quality Fluke Rigs Made in the USA™ (2022), which consists of a pegboard resembling a display case in a bait and tackle shop. Shaped to resemble a cute octopus, each applicator in the display is attached to a light-colored cardboard packaging emblazoned with the acronym “DTF,” which fictionally stands for “Duke the Fisherman” but is also slang for “down to.” fuck”.

The exhibition abounds with these sorts of ancient details, but they pile up into a feat of serious world-building. Over 250 nautical-themed artworks populate the show, most of them made from salvaged trash on the beach. Riley reconfigures this junk into forms that are alternately useful and decorative, from a working chandelier made from hundreds of empty mini liquor bottles (“Boozalier,” 2022) to a nearly 12-foot-long table runner woven from discarded plastic straws ( “On the back of the eels”, 2022); from a series of colorful plastic mosaics modeled after so-called “Sailor’s Valentines” to psychogeographic maps of polluted waterways in New York City. The artworks are installed in and around the museum’s Jan Martense Schenck and Nicholas Schenck-era homes, originally located on the Brooklyn waterfront in the 17th and 18th centuries, respectively. This clever curatorial choice gives Riley’s crazy repurposing gravity and casts it in an anthropological light.

Duke Riley, Poly S. Tyrene Memorial Maritime Museum #50-P, 74-P, 10, 70, 112, and 106 (2020), salvaged, painted plastic (Photograph by Robert Bredvad, Image courtesy artist, © Duke Riley)

The showcases in which clusters of scrimshaw imitations by the artist are exhibited have a similar effect. Inspired by the sailors’ carvings on 19th-century roller gears and occasionally displayed alongside real scrimshaw examples from the museum’s collection, Riley’s pastiches are made from salvaged plastic objects, all painted bone white and inlaid with black ink that mimic their antique ones decorate surfaces. At first glance, the display cases of replacement Scrimshaw exude museum credibility. But on closer inspection, the forms (a detergent bottle, a bear-shaped honey bottle, a toilet seat) and content (portraits of capitalist tycoons, mocked heroic US iconography; birds and fish exuding menace or calm) tend towards farce in the individual works. Each forged scrimshaw item has a numeric title that purports to catalog the work’s location in the fictional collection of the Poly S. Tyrene Memorial Maritime Museum.

Such whimsical style typifies the way Riley’s work here inhabits pre-existing cultural forms like a mischievous hermit crab, adding a burlesque twist to the trappings of museum exhibits, YouTube videos, folk art and more. Also the beautiful book accompanying the exhibition, Tides & Transgressions (2022), edited by Rizzoli, eschews the typical parade of expert catalog essays in favor of simple but effective quotations from the artist scattered between the images. This approach is consistent with the artistic stunts Riley is known for, such as his 2007 reenactment of a revolutionary-era submarine mission in New York Harbor, “The Battle of Brooklyn,” which led to his arrest led the NYPD. It also differs from more self-serious efforts at artistic salvage, exemplified by characters like El-Anatsui and Elias Sime, in which post-consumer waste has been upcycled into novel aesthetic forms.

But for all his tongue-in-cheek spirit, DEATH TO THE LIVING also has a sincere side, manifested in his laborious commitment to his own vanity. There are over 100 objects in the Poly S. Tyren Series alone, and each and every dense, patterned drawing has been rendered with meticulous detail. Likewise, the maps and tableaux, drawn on large, sometimes multi-part, rectangles of canary-yellow paper, teem with intricate penwork and whimsical detail. Such techniques differ from those of actual scrimshaw and cartography, but testify to a similar, almost obsessive investment in marker making. In this respect, the exhibition shows affinities with the ingenious series by Michael Rakowitz The invisible enemy should not exist (since 2007), which uses Arabic newspapers and food wrappers to create patchwork replicas of artifacts stolen from the National Museum of Iraq following the 2003 United States invasion. Though differing in tone and content, both projects attempt a near-impossible feat of enumerated museumological world-making that feels equal parts reparative and pointless.

Duke Riley, Monument to Five Thousand Years of Temptation and Deception (I) (2020), salvaged, painted plastic, mahogany (Photo by Will Howcroft for the Praise Shadows Art Gallery, courtesy of the artist and Praise Shadows Art Gallery , MA, ©Duke Riley)

DEATHThe reparative propensity of is most clearly articulated in his darkened final room, where a languid short video, “MICHELE” (2022), depicts the Sisyphean cleanup of Michele Klimczak, a Fishers Island resident tasked with removing plastic waste from the to remove beaches of the island. The wall text explains that about half of the plastic in the exhibition is by Klimczak, who alone collects up to 25,000 pounds of the material each year. With such coastal pollution, anything Klimczak or Riley can do as individuals feels a little absurd, but both are rolling up their sleeves and doing what they can anyway. The care Riley invests in his parodic world suggests that her gallows humor and seriousness are two sides of the same strained coin – both ways of reckoning with the impossibility, but also the necessity, of attempting the afterlife get to grips with kind of waste.

Duke Riley: DEATH OF THE LIVING, long live the garbage continues through April 23, 2023 at the Brooklyn Museum (200 Eastern Parkway). The exhibition was organized by the artist and Liz St. George, Assistant Curator, Decorative Arts, with Shea Spiller, former Assistant Curator, Arts of the Americas and Europe.

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