Drawings by Justin Duerr (of Toynbee fame) are full of vibrant, tiny details.
Three days before his show was set to open at Old City’s Gallery 309, Justin Duerr still had no idea what would be in it. “I’m just going to drop off a whole bunch of stuff and let the curator choose,” he said. And he’s right; there’s no shortage of material for Stranger Things Have Never Happened.
Duerr, who has no formal art training, has been working since the mid-’90s on an epic series of interconnected drawings whose mythology and iconography is so intricate that visitors will be encouraged to study them through magnifying glasses. “There are so many little pieces.” Duerr says of the show, which was curated by Robert Bullock, director of Coalition Ingenu (a nonprofit that promotes the work of self-taught artists). “You could spend hours and hours and hours going through and looking at them all.”
As the magnifying glasses might attest, Duerr is a remarkably persistent and philosophical sleuth. His obsession with discovering the truth behind a series of mysterious tiles embedded in city streets (including Philly’s) around North and South America is well-documented in filmmaker Jon Foy’s celebrated 2011 documentary, Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles (which will be screened twice during the run of the show).
“People go looking for truth in big ways and in big places and they can find it. But if you look at things that much smaller, you can find a lot of meaning in them if you choose to,” Duerr says. He means this very literally, as his drawings are comprised of infinitesimally detailed vignettes. And, they’ve all been drafted on one continuous roll of paper. (Duerr works from home whenever he has time, unrolling the paper onto his kitchen floor and then rolling it all back up for easy storage.) “They’re really a crime of convenience,” he admits. Eschewing oils and canvas for more modest highlighters, markers and pens, Duerr says he uses those materials because “that’s what’s on hand.” But these Office Max utensils also serve to underline his broader point that “there’s truth to be found in very humble places.”
When asked about his influences, Duerr goes ancient, saying that an exhibition of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in the 1980s made a huge impression on him. “That’s when I really started to draw. That opened up a little portal in my brain and I started to think about language.” Enthralled by the idea that writing would have been considered magical during a time when most people were illiterate, Duerr began incorporating text into his images. Since then, both textual and pictorial elements have entwined to form intricate patterns that to some viewers, look too complex to have been drawn by hand. “They assume it’s made by machine,” he says. But for Duerr, who’s steadily worked on these drawings for more than a decade, process is everything. “I feel like we’ve been numbed to the intensity of the handmade [object].”
In this endeavor, Duerr follows his own logic and his investigations consistently lead to one, overarching insight: It’s all connected. The continuous nature of the scroll lends itself to Duerr’s ever-accumulating narrative. “I’ve always had this idea that if I ever received a death notice, I’d do a drawing that connected them all together so that they’d go in a cyclorama.” Happily, nothing’s come full circle yet. In its current installation, Duerr’s drawings read from left to right across the gallery wall; a wild saga penned in neon hieroglyphics, legible only to those who love to pry.
Through April 30. Film screenings: Fri., April 13, 6pm; Fri., April 27, 6pm.
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PW's Holiday Guide 2014